UMARI, BAJAUR AGENCY, Pakistan
March 1, 2009 -- Down the long, dusty road leading to this outpost, where militants used to dump the mangled bodies of pro-government tribesmen, the shops lie in crumpled heaps of metal and brick. The mud homes that once dominated this mountainous landscape have disappeared back into the earth, victims of a six-month bombardment of Pakistani F-16s, tanks and paramilitary forces rooting out the Taliban.
The military says this was once the "center of gravity" of militancy in the area, and this weekend claimed that the Taliban here had "lost." If peace does come to this area and the army slowly leaves, it will hand over responsibility to a local administration with perhaps an even larger challenge than defeating an insurgency embedded into the population: preventing the militants from returning.
Eighty percent of the homes in Bajaur's combat zone, situated along a single road that runs through the tribal areas, were destroyed, according to the lead administrator of Bajaur. More than 300,000 of a population of a million fled to tent camps near the provincial capital. If all those people return to destroyed homes and businesses and do not believe the government is trying to fix them, there is a fear the Taliban could once again prey on a government vacuum.
"There is a lot of destruction that is caused due to collateral damage. The government must come with a huge development plan of reconstruction and rebuilding," Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas, the army's chief spokesman, told ABC News in Umari. He had just been given a colorful garland by local tribal elders, a ceremony of congratulations created for visiting media.
"If the reestablishment, or reconstruction, redevelopment, etc. is not on the heels, there is a possibility that yes, maybe the people may face the return of militants in the area. It may provide them the opportunity," he said.
This fight, in the northernmost of seven Pakistani tribal areas, was the Pakistani military's largest effort in the area since then President Pervez Musharraf allied himself with the United States after 9/11. Bajaur and Mohmand, the second agency visited during a daylong trip controlled by the military, lie across from Afghanistan's Kunar province. The single deadliest incident in years for Western forces in Afghanistan occurred last July, when militants attacked a joint American/Afghan outpost in Kunar, killing nine U.S. soldiers.
U.S. and Afghan officials have repeatedly blamed the huge increase in violence in Afghanistan since 2007 on militant safe havens in the Pakistani tribal areas. This trip, for mostly foreign media, was an attempt to show that the Pakistani military is serious about defeating the Taliban.
It was offered at the same time that the provincial government signed a peace deal with the Taliban in the Malakand district, which includes the Swat Valley, just about 50 miles from Bajaur. In return for the Taliban agreeing not to terrorize the local population, the army has promised to remain in its barracks, and more than one quarter of the Northwest Frontier Province will fall under Sharia, or Islamic law.
Asked to describe the difference between Swat and Bajaur, Abbas said the military operation in Swat had caused too many civilian casualties, something the government could not handle politically.
"Every military operation has to go through a cost benefit analysis. Now when the cost becomes prohibitive, when it comes to death, destruction, damage, and displacement, then you have to revisit the strategy," he said. "And if there are other options available, one must try other options."
In Bajaur, the head of the Frontier Corps, the paramilitary force leading the fight in the tribal areas, tried to paint a picture of an aggressive, take-no-prisoners force. He said he had just rejected a peace deal offered by the Bajaur Taliban.
"What I see is a militant who is thrashed, beaten and now does not know how to save his face and comes onto the radio and makes an announcement that I have declared a unilateral cease fire," Tariq Khan told reporters. "It is just like some street vendor giving pardon to the prime minster. It means nothing. It's just a statement. So why should I accept it?"
Baited by the press, Khan refused to say whether he would have been willing to sign a deal in Swat had he been in charge there. Khan, who is well respected by the American military, oversees fighting in all of the tribal areas except North and South Waziristan.
Those two agencies are the hub for the Taliban-al Qaeda nexus, where the Pakistani military has signed a deal with the Taliban and where CIA-operated predator drone strikes often attack Taliban and al Qaeda targets. Just today one drone fired two missiles into a house in South Waziristan, killing eight people, local residents told ABC News.
U.S. officials say cooperation along the border between Western forces in Afghanistan, the Afghan military and the Pakistani military has improved. But the 750 mile border still remains extremely porous, threatening troops on both sides.
In Mohmand Agency, just south of Bajaur, the military drove the media to an area known as the Khandaro Valley, just a few miles from Afghanistan. There, Col. Saif Ullah, the commander of Frontier Corps in Mohmand, described how as his forces began beating the Taliban back, militants would disappear.
"These people are now fleeing toward Afghanistan so you need to choke certain areas from where they are coming to their side," he told ABC News when asked where the militants were fleeing. "And moreover, the major armed militants which are coming presently [to Pakistan] are coming from the other side" of the border.
Commanders in both Bajaur and Mohmand say most of the militant commanders are Afghan. In Bajaur, Khan said, 50 percent of the resistance was Afghan, 30 percent were Taliban who traveled from Waziristan, 20 percent were local Taliban. And in both places, commanders said they had heard "chatter" in Arabic. Arab fighters from Sudan and Egypt had been killed, Khan said, a possible indication of al Qaeda links.
Bajaur is a rumored hiding place of Osama bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman al Zawahiri. In 2006 a drone strike just missed Zawahiri, U.S. officials said at the time.
Compared to trips organized by the Pakistani military last fall, there is a marked improvement in Bajaur. As recently as November, reporters witnessed constant firing just a few miles from Khar, the Frontier Corps base. Ninety-seven army and Frontier Corps troops have been killed since the operation began in September, Khan said, and now was the time for the government to move in.
"There is no such thing as a military solution. The success that we claim, if you want to call it a success, is to create a platform and an environment for political dispensation and establishing the writ of the government," he said.
Sharifullah Khan, Bajaur's political agent, will lead the effort to restore government writ. He said he had been given funds to recreate a heavily damaged water supply and electricity grid as well as to start rebuilding schools and roads. He said he is working closely with USAID, which has built schools in Bajaur, according to U.S. officials.
But he said he needed money to rebuild the homes, a process that will take up to three years. He also said peace in his agency is dependent on peace in the larger area.
"Until Afghanistan is stabilized," he said, "incidents will take place in the tribal areas."