Soldiers drive through a road near Wana, the main town in Pakistan's South Waziristan tribal region bordering Afghanistan November 27, 2012. - Photo by Reuters
Soldiers drive through a road near Wana, the main town in Pakistan's South Waziristan tribal region bordering Afghanistan November 27, 2012. - Photo by Reuters

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.

A man sits outside his shop at a market in Chagmalai in Pakistan's South Waziristan tribal region bordering Afghanistan November 29, 2012. - Photo by Reuters
A man sits outside his shop at a market in Chagmalai in Pakistan's South Waziristan tribal region bordering Afghanistan November 29, 2012. - Photo by Reuters

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.

Students sit near an image of Pakistan's national flag during class at the Musa Neka Public School in Wana, the main town in Pakistan's South Waziristan tribal region bordering Afghanistan November 28, 2012. - Photo by Reuters
Students sit near an image of Pakistan's national flag during class at the Musa Neka Public School in Wana, the main town in Pakistan's South Waziristan tribal region bordering Afghanistan November 28, 2012. - Photo by Reuters

A small, colourful marketplace was inaugurated last year and the green-and-white Pakistani flag was painted on the shutters of shops given to traders for a nominal fee. In a courtyard next door, army officers and government officials teach people how to raise poultry and set up bee farms.

But despite the development, Chagmalai still resembles a ghost town, a collection of ruined houses and abandoned clinics and schools with falling plaster and bullet-pocked walls. The army says it wants to turn the secluded landscape into a new home for those who have found the courage to return.

Ashraf Khan is a recently widowed farmer who has just returned from the Jandola fort where he asked the commanding officer for a loan.

“My wife used to gather firewood and collect water,” he said. “Now I need to buy a donkey. I'm hoping the soldiers will keep their promise to help.”

A few kilometres away, construction workers and army engineers have dug through rugged terrain to build a road, which will connect the isolated region with the northwest city of Peshawar, the nearest economic hub. The US government has contributed $170 million for the 287-km (180-mile) road.

Agricultural land and poultry farms line the sides of the highway, which zips through a breathtaking chasm of mountains and cliffs, its dual-lanes in better shape than many of those in Pakistani cities.

"The road has made it so much easier to move flocks, feed and medicines," said Hamid Jan who runs a poultry farm. "I've never earned this much money before."

Students attend class at the Musa Neka Public School in Wana, the main town in Pakistan's South Waziristan tribal region bordering Afghanistan November 28, 2012. - Photo by Reuters
Students attend class at the Musa Neka Public School in Wana, the main town in Pakistan's South Waziristan tribal region bordering Afghanistan November 28, 2012. - Photo by Reuters

"ASK ME ABOUT MY BOOKS"

The army believes it can create goodwill by encouraging commerce and, more importantly, education. Officers say 33 schools have been restored and 4,000 students enrolled, 200 of them girls, but verifying such data is difficult.

The Taliban oppose girls' education and in October shot a 15-year-old Pakistani girl, Malala Yousafzai, for advocating schooling for girls.

But the army says it will power on. Having previously served in the disputed border region between Pakistan and India, Colonel Asim Iqbal now shows off a flagship technical institute and cadet college built as part of the WHAM initiative.

Seventy-five students graduated from the 11-million-rupee Waziristan Institute of Technical Education in December with diplomas in auto-mechanics, carpentry and IT. Nearby, a cadet college has been built at a cost of 500 million rupees.

In the college computer lab, Shamsullah, 15, learnt word-processing. A poor teenager whose uncle was a militant commander killed in a US drone strike, Shamsullah could have been a ready Taliban recruit. Instead, he just wants to study.

"I have nothing to do with militancy," he said. "Ask me about my books."

An army instructor teaches students at a technical class in the Waziristan Institute of Technical Education (WITE) in Spinkai in Pakistan's South Waziristan tribal region bordering Afghanistan November 29, 2012. - Photo by Reuters
An army instructor teaches students at a technical class in the Waziristan Institute of Technical Education (WITE) in Spinkai in Pakistan's South Waziristan tribal region bordering Afghanistan November 29, 2012. - Photo by Reuters

But for all the high hopes, enthusiastic students, freshly plastered classrooms and tarmac roads, there is little sign of a credible civilian administration taking root.

The highest political officer in the area, the political agent, does not even live in South Waziristan out of fear of being killed by the Taliban, who have murdered hundreds of leaders in the tribal belt in recent years.

Pashtun elders said official records showed that school teachers absent for months were still drawing salaries while the administration took no action.

But political agent Shahidullah Khan said he was doing the best he could. "There is only so much I can do when I can't even travel outside the army camp," he said by phone from Tank, a town to the east of South Waziristan.

Only on Saturday, more than 30 people were killed in an attack on a military checkpost next to South Waziristan which the Taliban said was revenge for a drone strike that killed two commanders in North Waziristan last month.

Many of the boys playing cricket close to the market declined to answer when asked about army assurances of a better life. But referring to militants and the military, one said: "They're all the same."

Some army officers accept such criticism as valid, admitting to the state's decades-old heavy-handedness in the region.

"The budget for my brigade alone could take care of the education of all of South Waziristan," said General Butt. "We have made many mistakes. And we don't deny it any more."

But while Butt insists that the militants are no longer a force to be reckoned with in South Waziristan, many people are less optimistic.

"The army has blocked them for now but the Taliban can return," said a shop-keeper.

A tribal elder whose family has moved away and is too afraid to return, asked: "If the Taliban are really gone for good, why doesn't the army also leave?"

A man attends a computer class at the Wana Institute of Technical Training in Wana, the main town in Pakistan's South Waziristan tribal region bordering Afghanistan November 27, 2012. - Photo by Reuters
A man attends a computer class at the Wana Institute of Technical Training in Wana, the main town in Pakistan's South Waziristan tribal region bordering Afghanistan November 27, 2012. - Photo by Reuters

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Comments are closed.

Comments (18)

Akram
February 3, 2013 6:12 pm
I dont get your point (unless you are an Indian). Stooge or not, they are doing a good job to rehabilitate the people and bring peace to the area.
karim
February 4, 2013 6:48 pm
Due to cancer of mullahism and kalashniko culture, these tribesmen became the paid mercenaries of Taliban, Alqaida and God knows what other militant group.
karim
February 4, 2013 6:49 pm
Noone ever made a serious effort either. You are mouthing faulty colonial justifications for keeping these people wild and ignorant in their tribal bufferland.
usmanonthemoon
February 4, 2013 12:01 am
Finally, a DAWN report that takes the initiative in talking directly to the soldiers on the front line, rather than cutting and pasting news from other websites.
Mohsin
February 3, 2013 10:24 pm
No power in this world has been able to run its writ over these people of South Waziristan and none would ever...........................its history ....its the future.
Yawar
February 3, 2013 9:48 pm
How can the army that has been fighting the TTP win the hearts and minds of locals? WHAM will have to be implemented by the civilian government. And that too led by a person that the TTP is not at war with, such as Nawaz Sharif, Munawwar Hasan or Fazl-ur-Rehman.
janan
February 3, 2013 12:58 pm
I remembered we called these tribesmen the unpaid soldiers of Pakistan, now see what "we" turn them into. But still they are Puhktoon if time come they will again rise and fight shoulder to shoulder with Pak Army.
Abdul
February 3, 2013 12:46 pm
Nice propaganda article, Pakistan army is a stooge of America. Just like the British east India company used Indians to do its bidding so too is the Pakistan army just another stooge.
Khan
February 3, 2013 12:56 pm
Its time civilian take charge of the administration, I myself a big critics of army but strong civil administration is the answer going forward not army, let army manage the borders. Good job by army.
Muhammad Faran
February 3, 2013 11:22 am
GREAT ARTICLE ,..if this is true ..then i wish TTP leave and Pak army too...make a way of peace...
khalid s sheikh
February 3, 2013 7:38 pm
Shame on you Abdul .You do not seem to be a Pakistani .I think you are a paid Indian Agent
Candid1
February 3, 2013 7:21 pm
Great effort by the Army, but the criticism is invalid. Neglect of 65 years cannot be undone in a couple of years, and it is sad to see the civilians failing once again in performing their job, leaving the Army to pick up the slack.
khankhan
February 3, 2013 4:14 pm
They keep killing us and we keep releasing them. Nice gesture from both sides. Well done Rehman Malik
Akram
February 3, 2013 2:01 pm
progress can only come from educating the inhabitants that are there. eventually when progress happens the others will return. The TTP can be destroyed through educating the masses.
pathanoo
February 3, 2013 8:35 pm
Give credit where credit is due. At least, the idea is right.
Rajeev Mohan Sharma
February 3, 2013 4:24 pm
Had initially this education been provided to those simple, poor people, the Taliban's origin might not have taken place. Educated people would not have allowed Taliban to establish their roots in such a beautiful area. How ever Its never to be late.
Qaiser Bakhtiari
February 4, 2013 4:38 am
Unfortunately the politicization of Pakistan army has put it in the situation it is in today.
Sannam Jon
February 3, 2013 5:33 pm
"My wife used to gather firewood and collect water,” he said. “Now I need to buy a donkey. I’m hoping the soldiers will keep their promise to help.” Do you think anyone , specially Pakisani estalishment, can win this mind and heart?.
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