CHAGMALAI: In a Pakistan army base high in the mountains on the Afghan frontier, a general explains a strategy for fighting the Taliban he calls simply “WHAM”.
The name has a distinctly bellicose ring. But the soldiers are learning to fight a new kind of war in a region US President Barack Obama has called the most dangerous on Earth.
“WHAM - winning hearts and minds,” explains the straight-talking General Nazir Butt, in charge of converting the army's gains on the battlefield into durable security. “The plan is to turn militant sanctuaries into safe havens for the people.”
The term WHAM has been used before, but the focus this time is South Waziristan, an enclave on the Afghan border once the epicentre of a spreading Pakistan Taliban insurgency that shocked the country with its challenge to the authority of the state.
According to the army narrative, the campaign includes winning over the region's ethnic Pashtun tribes through dialogue, creating commercial opportunities and providing education in new schools and colleges.
During a three-day trip with the army, Reuters got a rare glimpse not just into the scale of the army's state-building project in South Waziristan, but also the challenges that lurk in the inhospitable territory.
However well-meaning the new approach, there are problems that won't go away - threats of retaliation by the al Qaeda-linked militants, a lack of effective civilian administration and endemic corruption.
And the campaign to win hearts and minds has an ignoble track record in other conflict zones which serve as a reality check for even the most optimistic Pakistani officials.
In Iraq and Afghanistan, Western nations poured in millions of dollars to rebuild militant strongholds and win affection.
Results have been limited: many residents view the armies as occupiers and militants remain a danger.
The goal won't be any easier in South Waziristan. The area forms one-fifth of Pakistan's Federally Administered Tribal Areas which are roughly the size of Belgium and governed under a system inherited from British colonialists.
Government-appointed political agents rule through the Pashtun tribes and collect and distribute revenue with little oversight. The people have limited rights.
While the Pakistani army backed the Taliban in Afghanistan in the 1990s, and supported militants fighting Indian rule in the Kashmir region, in South Waziristan it found itself under attack.
Decades of resentment felt by the population and the US bombing campaign on the Afghan border following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States spawned a generation of Pakistani militants who used South Waziristan to launch assaults against the Pakistani state and US-led forces in Afghanistan.
A DONKEY AND A HIGHWAY
Unsure how to respond, Pakistan see-sawed between brief military campaigns and appeasing the militants with short-lived peace deals. Then, in 2009, Pakistan's army chief ordered the biggest offensive yet, pouring 40,000 troops into South Waziristan in a bid to tip the balance.
The 2009 offensive displaced almost half a million people as homes, schools and hospitals were turned into hideouts by militants and meagre civic amenities were destroyed.
Today, a combination of the offensive and US drones has helped drive the Pakistan Taliban leadership out of South Waziristan and the army is looking for ways to convince people it is safe for them to return.
But after having spent close to three years in camps, only 41,000 refugees have come back.
“The people can only feel fully secure if there is social and economic uplift,” said a brigadier who commands a cliff-side compound near Wana, the main town in South Waziristan. “It took some time but we know now that 1,000 bullets can't do the work of one school.”
Many of the refugees have resettled in Chagmalai, a village close to Jandola, where the army is headquartered in a fort built by the British in the 19th century - a reminder of a centuries-old policy of ruling the area through a mix of intimidation and armed intervention.