A seven-month Pakistani offensive has broken the back of the Taliban in the Orakzai tribal region, commanders say. But they caution that success there does not mean Pakistani troops can now move into lawless North Waziristan _ an offensive Washington says is crucial for the war in Afghanistan.
Many critics suspect the country is dragging its feet for strategic reasons, but Pakistani officials say it's a question of resources. A new front would strain the army, undermining its efforts to keep Orakzai and other regions that have seen offensives in recent years from falling back into Taliban hands, the officials say.
"If someone starts pushing the military and the state of Pakistan to open a new front and the rear gets destabilized ... how are you going to succeed?" asked army spokesman Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas.
Orakzai, a lush, mountainous district that's slightly larger than Houston, is sandwiched between Khyber and Kurram tribal regions and does not directly border Afghanistan. Officials estimate its population at 500,000, and at least 200,000 people are believed to have fled due to the army operation.
Some 5,000 troops have taken on an unknown number of militants in the offensive that began in March, killing 654 of them and arresting 250, officials told reporters on a military-sponsored trip. The region was a stronghold of the Pakistani Taliban, but commanders could not say Tuesday for certain if al-Qaida had a presence.
In June, the army declared victory in Orakzai, but operations have continued. Six militants and a Pakistani soldier died Tuesday in a gunbattle. Nearly 70 soldiers have died during the offensive, which has relied heavily on airstrikes.
Officials said Tuesday that major operations had ended by June. Despite occasional attacks, the militants have largely been pushed to a northern slice of Orakzai or neighboring areas in Kurram and Khyber and are no longer capable of mounting large operations.
"We have broken their backs," said Maj. Gen. Nadir Zeb, head of the paramilitary Frontier Corps in the northwest.
The information provided by the military is difficult to confirm independently. Access to Orakzai, especially the conflict zones, is severely restricted by the government.
On Tuesday, reporters were taken to a base where they met some local residents brought in by the military, but were not taken to local villages, markets or towns to see if life really was returning. However, during helicopter flights over the region, people could be seen in the courtyards of their compounds.
A White House report dated September expressed worry over Pakistan's ability to hold areas it has cleared of militants, including in Orakzai.
"Unless these challenges are overcome, the government of Pakistan risks allowing the insurgency the opportunity to re-establish influence over a population that remains skeptical of its government's staying power," the report stated.
Pakistani commanders say the offensive is succeeding despite persistent violence. As evidence, they say 90 percent of Orakzai has been cleared of militants, civilians are slowly returning, and schools and homes are being rebuilt.
Riaz Mahsud, the top administrator of the region, said around 9,600 families had returned so far, and concurred with military officials who insisted that civilian casualties during the fighting have been "minimal."
Residents provided by the military to be interviewed Tuesday described the Taliban who once roamed their region as brutish men prone to slicing dissenters' throats. Many came to Orakzai after fleeing an army offensive in the South Waziristan tribal region. Asked why some Orakzai residents joined the militants, one elder said "the local people were gullible, innocent and foolish."
"But over time the people realized the Taliban were terrorists," Malik Haji Guldar Khan added.
One of the most terrorized communities in the area was the 400-member Sikh community, which has lived in the region for generations. The Taliban demanded the Sikhs pay a special tax for non-Muslims, and pressured them to convert.
Yet the Sikhs couldn't fathom living anywhere else. "We are sons of the soil," said Bahadur Singh, a Sikh leader.
Military commanders said they welcomed a recent U.S. pledge to provide an additional $2 billion in assistance to Pakistani troops, noting that what they needed most was combat aircraft and night-vision equipment. But they also said they needed the U.S. to come through with promises to develop the tribal areas. In Orakzai, an estimated 95 percent of the schools were damaged or destroyed and many villages burned, they said.
Pakistan's willingness to go into North Waziristan hinges on more than just its long-term success in Orakzai.
Unlike the Pakistani Taliban, which carried out attacks on numerous targets inside Pakistan, the militant groups that reside in North Waziristan are for the most part focused on waging war against NATO and American troops across the border in Afghanistan. Pakistan views them as less of an imminent threat _ and some critics believe Islamabad wants to retain their loyalty to have influence in Afghanistan once the U.S. leaves.
In any case, Pakistani officials say if an operation happens in North Waziristan, it will happen on Islamabad's timeframe, not Washington's. With fighting still going on in Orakzai _ not to mention several other tribal areas _ commanders were unwilling to make any promises Tuesday.
"It's a question of timing," said Lt. Gen. Asif Yasin Malik. "Everywhere there are reasons to go in, and there are reasons not to go in."