11 Jan 2013

Pakistan’s army: taking on the Taliban in Waziristan

The US wants Pakistan to do more in its fight against the Taliban in Waziristan. But the Pakistan soldiers maimed in the war on terror might argue they have already given enough. Chris Woods reports.

For more than 30 years Waziristan has been at the centre of international intrigue.

From here, CIA-backed jihadists helped defeat the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. A decade later the Taliban was born in religious colleges along the border.

Today, Waziristan is home to al-Qaeda and other militant groups. Little wonder Islamabad rarely allows foreign journalists inside to see what’s really happening. Even most Pakistanis are banned from visiting.

Recently, Channel 4 News had a rare opportunity to see South Waziristan for itself. Escorted by the army, we were able to meet with villagers trying to rebuild their lives in this conflict-torn region.

The area we visited used to be home to the Pakistan Taliban, still trying to overthrow the country’s government. When the army took them on in 2009, more than 300,000 people were displaced. Even now, less than a fifth has been able to come home. They’re dependent on the army for protection.

Dozens of towns and villages were destroyed in the fighting. Throughout South Waziristan we saw major reconstruction work being carried out by the Pakistan army. The United States is even paying for the roads to be rebuilt here. But local people had few good words to say about this.

Drone strikes

Everywhere we went people wanted to talk about CIA drone strikes. In Sara Rhoga, once the headquarters of the Pakistan Taliban, there hasn’t been a drone strike for four years. But villagers were still angry.

Men gathered at the marketplace told us that most of those who had died in three strikes in 2009 were militants. But after chatting among themselves, they handed Channel 4 News the names of five civilians they said had also died.

Despite its fierce reputation, we never felt threatened in this part of South Waziristan. One army officer even described it as “the safest place in Pakistan”. The army has carved out a strong security bubble, where tribesmen are banned from carrying guns in public. One shopkeeper told us he now sells catapults instead of AK-47s.

Yet the Pakistan Taliban has only been displaced to North Waziristan, from where it still mounts deadly attacks. There is much debate about whether taking the fight to them will be better or worse for Pakistan’s security, in the long run. The greatest fear is that thousands more civilians and soldiers might die as a consequence.

Chris Woods is an investigative journalist focused on national security issues and the war on terror. He has been reporting on Pakistan since 1999