Page last updated at 15:52 GMT, Monday, 9 March 2009

Winning the peace in Pakistan's tribal areas

Troops in Bajaur
Troops say they blasted the Taleban with helicopter gun ships, artillery and tanks

Renewed clashes in the Pakistani tribal areas of Bajaur and Mohmand killed a number of militants and tribal policemen at the weekend. The army had claimed major security gains against the Taleban in this region during a recent trip for journalists. Barbara Plett was part of the group.

After six months of fighting, the Pakistan army has prepared a celebration on the Afghan border.

Troops perform a guard of honour in front of visiting journalists, and tribal elders wrapped garlands around the necks of army officers.

They are marking what they say is the defeat of the Taleban in the strategically important tribal area of Bajaur, described as a hub for militants from Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Maj Gen Tariq Khan
Gen Khan says the army is in control

A few days later the tribe signs a deal with the government, pledging to disband militant groups, surrender key rebel leaders, refuse shelter to foreign fighters and respect state authority.

Other such agreements have failed, but the army has more faith in this one.

"The resistance collapsed, there is no more resistance," says Major General Tariq Khan, who is in charge of the military operation.

"There are some kind of face saving statements made by the militants, that there is a unilateral ceasefire, but we haven't accepted the ceasefire."

It is a rare declaration of victory from the army, which faces increasing US pressure to clampdown on Taleban and al-Qaeda sanctuaries in the volatile Pakistani tribal belt bordering Afghanistan.

Since September General Khan's men have fought against an entrenched network of militants, half of whom he says were Afghans. Nearly 100 soldiers and 150 civilians have been killed.

'Decisive battle'

The army says more than 1,600 militants have also died, although that figure cannot be independently verified, and none of the leaders have been captured.

Umer Ali
Everyone here is very poor and they don't have the means to rebuild their homes
Tribesman Umer Ali

Despite the upbeat assessment, we are tracked by a heavily armed escort, and soldiers stand guard on the road and rooftops as we drive through the ruined village of Inayat Killay.

We are told this was a decisive battle as troops blasted the Taleban with helicopter gun ships, artillery and tanks.

It may have dealt the militants a crippling blow, but it also left the market place a jumbled mess of broken walls, piles of concrete, twisted metal and corrugated iron sheets.

"About 5,000 houses have been destroyed during this operation, which is 80% of the houses in the conflict zone," says Bajaur's political administrator Shafir Ullah Khan.

"We have to bring back tens of thousands of displaced people and provide them facilities of agriculture, electricity, water and some assistance for reconstruction of their homes."

Tribesman Umer Ali, who attended the ceremony, agrees: "We're distressed because of the destruction," he says. "Everyone here is very poor and they don't have the means to rebuild their homes, we'll need help from the government."

General Khan is now looking beyond Bajaur. He says there is a "reasonable state of stability" in five of the seven tribal areas under his command.

"I'd put a timeframe somewhere by the end of the year, we'll be more or less over with military operations."

'Entirely safe'

In Mohmand, the tribal area adjacent to Bajaur, we are shown a large cache of weapons, captured, says the commander Col Saif Ullah, from the headquarters of the local Taleban chief.

He takes us to the school which he claims the Taleban used as a base. It stands empty now, its walls blown out, its rooms cluttered with the debris of damaged desks.

Tribal areas map

"This road on which you are standing is safe, it's entirely safe to move now," he says.

"We also have free movement from Peshawar to Bajaur. This was not possible for one and a half years, the militants had closed this road."

We do indeed drive some 40km (25 miles) through a lovely green valley in Mohmand, passing by women with bundles and buckets on their heads, and through a marketplace full of people.

But we go at such a breakneck pace it is hard to think the roads are all that safe. And as we leave, there is word that soldiers have been attacked and killed, not far away.

The Taleban may be on the retreat in Bajaur and Mohmand, but in the nearby Swat valley it looks like they are on the rise.

The government has agreed a ceasefire with the Taleban there. This has been criticised as appeasement, but army spokesman Maj Gen Athar Abbas says different areas require different strategies.

"Swat is a settled area, not a tribal area, it's densely populated," he says.

"The continuation of the military operation in Swat was at the cost of huge collateral damage: displacement, death and destruction. So the government decided to apply another strategy, which is unfolding. It would be premature to really comment on whether that's a success or failure."

The military admits that force alone won't work here either. In a region often hostile to the army, reconstruction - and reconciliation - will be needed to win the peace.

"We know that the place now requires relief, it requires funding, development and opportunity," says Gen Khan.

"Unless that is done, it's not going to help in establishing stability in the region as we would like to see it."

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