WANA, Nov 2: Deep in Pakistan’s unruly tribal areas, army engineers protected by soldiers on mountaintops spend hours every morning combing the earth for Taliban bombs before embarking on a special mission.
After determining there is no danger, they use machinery to cut through rugged terrain to build a highway Pakistan hopes will give it an edge over militants by connecting the underdeveloped region to the central economy.
It is one of several ‘Quick Impact Projects’ designed to win over the population of the restive South Waziristan area, reportedly home to some of the most dangerous militant groups in the world.
“When the economy prospers, mindsets change. When there is opportunity for business and commercial activities, people focus on that and less on violence,” said Zahid Raja, spokesmen for the army’s construction and civil engineering wing.
“That is how there is an overall impact on security.”
If the project succeeds, it could help the government gain influence in a restive border region.
The Taliban seem to understand the road could pose a threat.
They have dispatched suicide bombers to kill engineers and soldiers working on the highway and regularly stage ambushes.
“It is only now, after sixty years (of its existence), that Pakistan has tried to understand the tribal areas,” said Mahmood Shah, a former intelligence official in the region who praised the highway project but wondered how committed authorities were to completing it.
“Before, nobody in Islamabad knew about the region.”
Empty promises: Persuading Pashtun tribesmen in South Waziristan and elsewhere who have long been suspicious of the state to cooperate won’t be easy. They have heard many empty promises of roads, jobs, schools and hospitals before.
This time, officials say, the $81 million in funds mostly from the United States and the United Arab Emirates will be made available soon so the highway can be completed by a target date of 2013.
“Despite security threats, we are working as quickly as we can,” said Mohammad Ali, an official involved with the project.
The militants, for their part, have spent years making sure people are too scared to side with the state, beheading pro-government officials and tribal leaders.
Still, the prospects of economic integration are raising spirits among some of the 500,000 inhabitants of South Waziristan, an arid and mountainous region pockmarked with sparse forest and dried up creeks.
“We have wanted this for a long time. It is God’s blessing that this road is being built,” said Saifur Rehman Wazir, a tribal elder in his 50s.
A few sections of the highway have already opened and the bustling traffic has fuelled optimism in the area.
“If there is a good road there will be business. I own land and it’s going to increase in value by ten-fold,” said Mir Aman, 26, who owns apple orchards.
“I have already spoken to my father about maybe setting up a petrol pump.”
Pakistan has come under immense pressure to tackle militants since US special forces killed Osama bin Laden in May in Abbottabad, where he had apparently lived for years.
Stabilising the border area will become more urgent for the United States as it nears the deadline for withdrawing combat troops from Afghanistan at the end of 2014.
But pacifying the region will take time and lots of investment to erase the conditions that fuel militancy, such as poverty and unemployment. The government is cash-strapped, heavily reliant on foreign aid and is often paralysed by political squabbling, so coming up with the funds for more projects may be difficult in the face of the harsh realities on the ground. —Reuters