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In Bajaur, Pakistan Army faults U.S. strategy

After a bloody campaign that lasted six months, the Pakistan Army has restored control over this tribal agency that nearly fell last year to a rampaging Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). As the Army helicopter swept down towards the fort, it was clear that the Army and the paramilitary Bajaur Scouts were putting their best foot forward to showcase an area that had gone out of state control to militias aligned with Behtullah Mehsud's TTP.

Rosy-cheeked children, girls and boys, stream out of schools, the older ones taking home provisions of sugar and flour, the younger ones stopping to wave at the hurrying convoy. People are clustered around a pack of shops crammed with medicines near one of the biggest hospitals in the region. And the few general-purpose shops open have multi-coloured sweets.

Three of the area's top TTP leaders are on the run. A meticulously dug cave near the village of Damadola was assaulted and captured, and operations are on in the higher mountain reaches that enclose the wide valley of Khaar town and its adjoining villages.

In the fort, senior Army officials detached themselves from inspecting a captured wheeled contraption — used by militants to quickly shift mortar guns from one firing location to another — to meet Indian journalists ferried from Islamabad. The gutted armoured vehicles and mini-trucks Pakistani journalists saw months earlier have been removed, and bombarded shops and houses where militants made their last stand are the only aberration to a partly enforced scene of normalcy.

But the danger is present and serenity brittle. A short distance from the briefing room, two artillery guns are dug into the soft soil, their barrels facing the mountains, misty in the upper reaches and divided into canopies of green and smouldering boulders. The guns are part of the heavy weaponry that the Pakistan Army flooded the frontier agencies with to plaster militants mercilessly after ordering the evacuation of the entire population.

The Army is still not taking any chances. A large group of men in Pathan suits, spotted hurrying away when the helicopter landed, could be the same ones who lined the bazaar when the media convoy passed by. Most shops are shuttered and traffic on either side has been stopped. Soldiers with their backs to us dot the entire route to a laboriously dug TTP hideout aimed at riding out air attacks. The Army overran it while they were still adding cisterns and doorframes.

An army captain suddenly materialises when the last vehicle in the convoy stalls, gets into the driver's seat and shows the right way to disengage the gears. This is near the village of Damadola, where a U.S. airstrike killed 83. It is also the birthplace of the TTP's predecessor organisation. Osama Bin Laden and Mullah Omar were sighted here after the U.S. bombing in 2001, using the same high ridges they roamed during the anti-Soviet jehad.

But soldiers cramming the back of the SUVs are relaxed, one confessing that he just “missed” becoming a shaheed when his platoon was encircled. He and his mates escaped getting slaughtered after fighter jets and helicopter gunships arrived to pound militant positions.

The Pakistan Army is still taking casualties — it has already lost 1,000 men and officers, with 9,000 injured — and the militants retain the wherewithal to issue press statements and dispatch suicide bombers.

This is the 22nd delegation of foreign journalists being brought to the Bajaur tribal agency, bordering Afghanistan's Kunar province, which has the same stock of Pathan tribals. But this is the first time the Pakistan Army has brought Indian journalists. And they were wholehearted about fulfilling their part of the bargain.

Twice the choppers were ready, but cloud cover made crossing the mountains and valleys on the way to this northernmost of the seven Pakistani tribal agencies treacherous. The promise was to take us to the scenic Swat Valley as well, but it had to be aborted as the weather cleared only on the last day of our stay in Islamabad.

But this would probably be the first batch of journalists that was sympathetic to their narrative of why militants overran the tribal agencies, bringing in their wake deadly ambushes, pitiless killing of civilians suspected of collaborating with the government, checkpoints on roads, closure of music and barber shops, and revenue collection in the name of donations.

All senior Pakistan Army officials make the same point: the faulty U.S. strategy in Afghanistan pushed militants here and nearly led to the takeover of the tribal agencies and Swat. There is no coordination between the two forces on U.S. drone attacks, which “ignite” public opinion as they also kill children and women. Instead, western reports prefer to describe the terrain that has hosted proxy warriors for three decades and the fact that outsiders rarely get access to the region where the distrust of strangers borders on xenophobia, but a guest will be sheltered against all odds. Where there is no application of conventional law, but tribes have self-governance systems. Force and allurement are two sides of the coin to ensure the state's writ is more or less maintained.

The Army has taken a huge gamble by hosting Indian journalists and baring their innermost thoughts to them. The common thread of the briefings was acute displeasure with U.S. political and military tactics.

The U.S. was trying to rectify its political mistake of ignoring Pashtuns in the Afghan governance structure through military strategy, said an officer. Another found fault in the military strategy: “While they pushed from the north, they did not block the rear.”

Either way, in these rugged frontier regions, Pakistan has been left fighting a Holy War that has ricocheted.

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Printable version | Jul 10, 2020 9:28:34 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/news/international/In-Bajaur-Pakistan-Army-faults-U.S.-strategy/article16372542.ece

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