In Former Taliban Sanctuary, an Eerie Silence Takes Over
KOTKAI, Pakistan—In the midst of a sprawling desert stands a small town that has the look and feel for some of a prefab Potemkin village.
The military has tried for three years to transform this onetime Taliban sanctuary into a model village. Well-concealed caves once used
by militants have been supplanted by cliff-side army outposts. Teens who might have become insurgent recruits now play soccer with soldiers on a refurbished sports field. Jobless men linger at a half-empty, army-subsidized roadside market nestled below a hillside peppered with abandoned homes.
Residents who have returned to South Waziristan spend hours at the army-subsidized town markets, which the military hopes will become small economic hubs for the area.
This is counterinsurgency, Pakistan-style. In 2009, the Pakistani government staged a major offensive to retake Kotkai and the rest of So
uth Waziristan from al Qaeda militants and Taliban fighters who had turned the Delaware-size region into a perilous stronghold. Now, the government is waging a different campaign—trying to convince a wary population to return to a home they abandoned during the fighting.
The effort has produced some surreal scenery, with shuttered markets in virtual ghost-towns set alongside deserted stretches of highway. So far, the military has discovered that luring people back to a battle-scarred area—particularly while the fight goes on—may be as challenging as pushing the militants out.
“People want to go back, but they don’t want to go back when they are afraid for their lives,” said Reza Nasim Jan, a researcher at the conservative American Enterprise Institute who is studying the Pakistan counterinsurgency campaign.
The U.S. has a stake in the strategy, which is part of a stark reality of modern warfare, as countries try to stabilize risky battle zones before once-embedded militants can return. Since 2007, it has dedicated more than $1 billion in civilian aid to South Waziristan and the broader region. U.S. officials are hoping the military will use the 2009 offensive as a springboard to launch a major offensive in North Waziristan, now the most important sanctuary for the Taliban and anti-American militants.
In an effort to promote its campaign to reshape South Waziristan, the Pakistan military granted The Wall Street Journal rare access to the restricted military zone that has long been off-limits to international reporters. Pakistan said it was the first time in years that an American reporter had been given permission to enter the tightly controlled area.
Pakistani military leaders here say reviving impoverished towns remains the centerpiece of the country’s evolving campaign to convert longtime insurgent havens into tranquil sanctuaries where militants can no longer hide. The campaign mirrors the strategy embraced by the U.S. itself in Iraq and Afghanistan, where American troops spent years rebuilding forsaken insurgent strongholds.
“That’s the way out,” said Brigadier General Hassan Hayat, the commander of Pakistani forces in-and-around Kotkai. “If you don’t follow the counterinsurgency model of winning hearts and minds, you can keep fighting for years to come.”
Though quieter now, the rocket-pocked cliff-side homes and hidden caves of South Waziristan were once used by al Qaeda and the Taliban as a staging ground for attacks against Pakistani officials, American soldiers in neighboring Afghanistan and adversaries across the globe. Armed CIA drones frequently buzzed overhead, searching for targets as some of the world’s most sought-after terrorists trained suicide bombers, cultivated double agents and orchestrated political assassinations.
Faced with new Taliban leaders turning their deadly focus more toward Pakistan, the military sent 28,000 soldiers into the region in 2009, launching airstrikes and sending in paratroops to overwhelm the insurgents in two months. As the conflict unfolded, two-thirds of South Waziristan’s 590,000 residents fled.
“They say even the birds left the area,” General Hayat said during the tour of South Waziristan. “It was a challenge to bring people back.”
To a large degree, that challenge remains. In the small rehabilitated zone around Kotkai, military leaders say three-quarters of residents have returned. But in all of South Waziristan, only about 10,000 families have come back, according to Pakistan government statistics; another 41,000 families, which could be more than 300,000 people, still live as de facto refugees in their own country. United Nations officials said many have settled with family nearby or are still living in refugee camps.
For those who do return, access in the zone is strictly regulated. Only Pakistanis who have gone through a formal repatriation process are allowed to freely come and go, military officials said. All other visitors, be they U.N. consultants or family relatives, must get military permission.
The process includes a long registration, and returnees must carry identification cards. They are given $250 and a card that entitles them to six months of food rations. They are not allowed to own weapons, prompting the more-creative residents to carry wood slingshots instead. Telephone service is also tightly regulated; military leaders worry that regular phone access could help the Taliban to reorganize there.
More than 10,000 members of the Pakistan military secure the area around Kotkai, officials said, a ratio of one soldier for every five civilians. The intensive security bubble gives the military so much confidence that commanding generals drive around without wearing flak jackets and officers pick up hitchhikers on the main road.
“South Waziristan is far better than Karachi,” said Captain Fahim, head of a new military cadet college, in comparing the region to the major Pakistan port city that has been engulfed by political and sectarian violence. “There’s no crime here.”
The two-day Journal trip, conducted with armed military escorts and Pakistan officers monitoring virtually every interview, offered a unique window into the counterinsurgency campaign. Ground zero is Kotkai, which sits amid barren saffron and chocolate colored hillsides above a snaking river cutting through South Waziristan. The town was one of the first targets of the 2009 strike and now is at the heart of the military’s rehabilitation zone.
General Hayat commands his forces from a nearby cliff side compound once used by Taliban leaders. Looking out on the surrounding scenery, he has high hopes, envisioning a day when tourists come to enjoy the red rock canyons that once served as insurgent sanctuaries.
To win support from residents, soldiers have established new training schools and computer labs. They have built a series of roadside markets, each with individual stalls that have a green-and-white Pakistani flag painted on sliding metal doors. Across the region, Pakistani officers spend their days teaching local residents where to set up rudimentary fish farms, how to manage chicken coops, and even take what it takes to become successful beekeepers.
But the government has given little to help individuals rebuild homes that were damaged or destroyed during the offensive. Some Kotkai residents were so discontented that they took the risk of publicly challenging the Pakistan military—as armed soldiers listened to their interviews.
“We were happy when the Taliban were here,” Kotkai teacher Noor Rehman said during an interview in the sparsely filled library as half dozen Pakistani soldiers listened. “They created no problems for us in teaching.” Only 150 boys have returned to the school, he said, compared with the 400 it once educated.
Like most residents of South Waziristan, Mr. Rehman fled the area before the 2009 offensive. Mr. Rehman returned in 2011 to help teach in Kotkai. But he hasn’t been able to visit his home because it is in a part of South Waziristan still considered too dangerous.
At the central market, residents gathered around to complain that they had been lured back with unfulfilled assurances of a better life. “I was given six months of food and now that is finished, so now we don’t know what to do,” said Sadar Jan, an elderly Pakistani with a scruffy beard dyed with orange henna. “We are all unemployed and facing a lot of problems.”
Pakistani generals acknowledge that the going is slow. But they say that they are expanding the security bubble across South Waziristan. “We are in the holding stage with no judicial system and no political system,” said General Hayat. “This is only one area, but it is a model that is being replicated.”
A spokesman for the country’s president, Asif Ali Zardari, who has nominal control over the military, declined to comment.
Ultimately, said Joshua Foust, a fellow at the American Security Project familiar with the region, Pakistan must address the broader sense of political disenfranchisement that originally fed the insurgency. “It seems like all they have done is create a few showcases,” he says. “There a lot of questions about repatriating people to an area of active insurgency for the sake of a photo op.”
Beyond South Waziristan, Kotkai has emerged as a symbol in an international campaign against controversial U.S. drone attacks. Last October, dozens of American activists joined legendary cricket hero Imran Khan as the aspiring Pakistani presidential candidate unsuccessfully attempted to lead a convoy of 200 cars into the South Waziristan village to protest American drone strikes.
Drone strikes remain one of the most polarizing issues in Pakistan, where many view the American program as an assault on their country’s sovereignty. U.S. officials defend armed drones as one of the most effective weapons against terrorists. Since 2004, as many as 600 civilians in Pakistan have been killed by American drone strikes, according to think tanks and human rights groups.
But the civilian death toll has fallen sharply since the Obama administration tightened up rules for such strikes, some analysts say.
In South Waziristan, the view of drones is divided. For some, their use only cultivates more anti-American animosity, and many in the military consider them anti-productive. “The whole nation is against drones,” said General Hayat. “How can you say drones are winning the battle? You will produce hundreds of others to keep fighting.”
But out of earshot of the soldiers, a few South Waziristan residents privately endorsed the American operation. While killing civilians, drones have also have played a key role in helping Pakistan drive the Taliban leadership out of South Waziristan.
Baitullah Mehsud, founder of the Pakistani Taliban, was reportedly killed by an American drone strike in 2009 as Pakistan prepared for the South Waziristan offensive. A similar U.S. strike in 2010 reportedly killed Qari Hussain, the Taliban deputy from Kotkai who American officials accused of training the suicide bomber who killed five Central Intelligence Agency officers at a U.S. base in eastern Afghanistan.
“I am a government servant so I can’t say it publicly, but I really want the drones to increase because they have eliminated all of the bad people,” said one man. “There should be more drone strikes.”
Some residents of South Waziristan remain wary of their own military, which is sometimes seen as the heavy hand of the nation’s dominant Punjab class used against the country’s Pashtun population, a large ethnic group from which the Taliban draws most of its fighters.
For years, South Waziristan residents have accused the military of conducting a campaign of harassment, beating and extrajudicial killings that is alienating the population. Amnesty International released a recent report raising similar accusations of “unchecked abuses” in South Waziristan. The military has flatly denounced such claims.
Fear of the military is palpable. Many Pashtun Pakistanis were afraid to openly criticize the army, even when offered guarantees that their identities wouldn’t be publicly revealed. In one case people were willing to discuss, residents told The Wall Street Journal that Pakistani soldiers opened fire on a car driving through South Waziristan last fall that didn’t pull over as a military vehicle approached from behind, killing the driver. The military later apologized, they said, and paid the family $3,000.
Military officials would not comment on the specific case. But General Hayat said that the military needs to use tough tactics in the area to ensure that the insurgency doesn’t regain an advantage.
“In case somebody fights me, I would still like to have a heavy hand,” he said. “I would not like to spare them. The whole game plan revolves around peace.”
Pakistan’s gambit has also drawn grumbling from American officials, who continue to press for a major military offensive to rout out the Taliban in North Waziristan, which itself has a population of more than half a million.
But Pakistan commanders here are resistant to the U.S. calls for an operation that doesn’t yet have widespread public support.
“From a Western perspective it may look like an immediate necessity,” said General Hayat. “But from a Pakistani perspective, I think time should dictate.”
If the remote region can be revived and terrorism is chased out, there is hope for an economic revival of sorts. The U.S. has been spearheading a “New Silk Road” initiative to establish a trade network through South Asia. America has spent $140 million for the Pakistan military to build new roads in South Waziristan that could become part of a new trade network with Afghanistan. Currently, Pakistan officials say they export about $2 billion in goods to Afghanistan, and both countries are hoping to double that in the coming years.
For now, the checkpoint-clogged roads are primarily used by Pakistani soldiers traveling across North and South Waziristan. “The real change will come once this route is fully functional,” said Brig. Gen. Azhar Abbas, a commander of Pakistani forces in South Waziristan.
It is one goal that most residents enthusiastically endorse. Standing among scores of men accepting free blankets and clothes from the Pakistan military, Liaqat Ali Mehsud, a teacher, said the road is so good that he’s forgotten that his home was destroyed.
“Tell Barack Obama to give $1 billion more to Pakistan,” he said.