ISLAMABAD, Pakistan - As President Barack Obama was feted in India, his message to neighboring Pakistan — do more to shut down terrorist safe havens — was sure to irk the Islamabad government, which insists it’s doing more than ever to help the U.S. battle against the Taliban.
“We will continue to insist to Pakistan's leaders that terrorist safe havens within their borders are unacceptable," Obama said in a speech to India's parliament.
India is the first stop of a 4-nation Asia tour by the U.S. president. Not only is his longest stop in India, but Obama has noticeably skipped a visit to Pakistan.
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It’s all salt in the wounds for Pakistan, which feels its sacrifices in an unpopular war remain unappreciated.
With 150,000 troops hunting down the Taliban in the virtually ungovernable tribal regions, Pakistan’s causality figures are rising – over 2,000 soldiers have been killed and more than 6,000 wounded in the 9-year “war on terror.” That doesn’t count civilian casualties, estimated at around 21,000 slain and injured.
Yet, discussions with military leaders suggest that the gains that may have been made may not be enough, that it may be an “unwinnable” war for Pakistan.
Way out of unpopular war
In public, Pakistan’s generals claim they have broken the back of the local militants, that their leaders are in hiding and the groups are in disarray.
The latest success is in Orakzai, where Taliban leader, Hakimullah Mehsud had established complete control and set up headquarters for the Pakistani Taliban.
“Orakzai was the center of gravity from where they would move and that free movement is no longer there,” said Major General Nadir Zeb, commander of the paramilitary Frontier Corps, during a recent visit to Kalaya in lower Orakzai. A full 90 percent of Orakzai has been cleared of insurgents, he added.
Surrounded by mountains, some reaching as high as 7,000 feet, Orakzai is the only one of the seven semi-autonomous tribal agencies or regions that does not border Afghanistan. Before being ousted by the Pakistani army, militants planned attacks on the Pakistani state from Orakzai, and moved freely into neighboring Peshawar and other main cities.
The Taliban often bragged that Orakzai was far away, and therefore safe, from the U.S. predator drones and NATO forces in Afghanistan. It was relatively easy for them to move southwest into the Khyber and Kurram agencies and use Bilandkhel, a tiny village that links Orakzai with North Waziristan, the heart of the insurgency, and sneak across the border to fight coalition forces.
The easy movement of insurgents largely came to an end when the army sealed off routes connecting in November, 2009, to try and prevent the militants fleeing the offensive in South Waziristan from seeking a safe haven in Orakzai.
But that wasn’t the success that it seemed – officials now acknowledge that Taliban leaders like Hakimullah Mehsud are still alive because they rarely stay and fight and instead leave at the beginning of an operation. In this way, they are able to organize new recruits and drift back into areas after the army withdraws.
Indeed, even though the army launched its first offensive in Orakzai three years ago, the fighting is ongoing and thousands of people have fled their homes and villages.
Social worker Rahat Orakzai left the area in 2008 during an army offensive around his village, along with other members of his family and tribe. Months later, after the army had declared his area cleared of militants, he returned home only to find the Taliban still in control.
“We had to leave our homes twice due to the bombings and the brutality of the Taliban,” he said from a makeshift home in the town of Hangu, across the border from Orakzai in Pakistan proper. “Now we will stay put and not go back until we are absolutely sure the Taliban can never come back.”
The military has announced that combat operations in Orakzai were over on several occasions. Last June, generals again declared victory only to find themselves engaged in fierce battle the very next day.
“This is an unwinnable war for (the Pakistan army),” said retired General Talat Masood, a military analyst. “You cannot win by killing and shooting people without going for the reasons that have given rise to this militancy.”
The government must address the lack of education, infrastructure and security for the people living in the tribal areas, as well as integrate the frontier into Pakistan proper, he said. And it also needs to abolish archaic land laws left over from the British Raj by which the tribal areas are governed, Masood added.
Also weighing heavily on the minds of Pakistan’s senior commanders and government officials are the 400,000 displaced people who were forced to flee their homes during the army’s offensive in South Waziristan last year. Military officials are anxious to move them back to their homes but had to delay the repatriation because the army was tied up in the rescue and rehabilitation operations of last summer’s flood victims.
Privately, some security officials say that the majority of the displaced families are too frightened of the Taliban to return back to their villages. An imminent operation in North Waziristan would create another torrent of hundreds of thousands of refugees and a backlash that the country can neither cope with nor afford, many believe.
‘How can the army claim victory?’
The military commanders freely admit that they are stretched.
The army is still bogged down in areas where they’ve wrapped up combat operations, like Swat, Bajaur, South Waziristan and Mohmand. The generals are only too well aware that if they withdraw too soon, the Taliban will move right back in.
When asked how long it would take before Orakzai is completely secured, Zeb said he needed more time.
"It could be months," he said.
For Israr Mahmud, a retired schoolteacher living in Orakzai, the Taliban are still very much around.
“They continue to kidnap people, run their own prisons and distribute their own harsh justice,” he told NBC News angrily. “They blow up army vehicles and kill soldiers almost every day, so how can the army claim victory?”
Still, the U.S. wants Pakistan to do more and is pushing hard for an offensive to clean up North Waziristan right next to Orakzai.
Branded the epicenter of terrorism, U.S. officials believe North Waziristan is the logistical headquarters for al-Qaida and a witches brew of terrorists planning attacks not only across the border in Afghanistan but also on the U.S. and Europe.
‘Follow the tribal ways’
Pakistani security insiders are resisting U.S. demands for an aggressive and immediate push in the area, however, saying its national priorities must come first and now is not the right time.
“We cannot just go (for a full-blown operation) into North Waziristan,” said a senior Pakistani security official who requested anonymity when speaking of the military’s strategy. “We have to follow the tribal ways and work with the tribes or else it won’t work.”
And that probably means doing deals with the elders who can convince the rest of the tribes to expel the foreigners in their area, usually in return for some financial reward. After elders agree to a deal, according to the tribal code of honor, anyone who breaks it will bring collective punishment on the entire tribe.
Lt. General Asif Yasin Malik, the main military commander in Pakistan’s northwest, echoed that sentiment when he said that it would still take months before ongoing operations and talks in other tribal areas completely cleared out the militants.
“What we have to do, we have to stabilize the whole area. I have a very large area in my command so I must stabilize the other areas and then maybe look at North Waziristan,” Malik said.
Such talk is likely to upset U.S. officials. Equally alarming for the American government is Pakistan’s assertion that it will not go after the al-Qaida linked Haqqani network in North Waziristan. Washington has pointed to eliminating the group as key to stabilizing Afghanistan.
Pakistani doubts expressed both privately and publicly haven’t stopped the rumors in North Waziristan that the army will strike simply because the U.S. is demanding they do. Hafiz Gul Bahadur, a prominent Taliban commander in North Waziristan, recently offered to raise two billion dollars for the army so the government could be strong enough to refuse U.S. money and not attack the tribes of North Waziristan.
Masood, the military analyst, described the current state of U.S.- Pakistan relations as unfortunate.
“Pakistan is in a trap," he said. “The U.S. is so hard on Pakistan and pushes Pakistan so much that we have lost our ability to find our own solutions.”