The United States has long maintained that Pakistan’s tribal territory is the main source of cross-border militant attacks into neighboring Afghanistan. But military commanders in Pakistan now are dismissing these charges, claiming they have secured most of the lawless region within the past three years. The military says its counterinsurgency campaign is now trying to uproot the remaining pockets of resistance.
Tens of thousands of Pakistan's regular and paramilitary forces have been battling insurgents to secure the country’s northwestern Federally Administered Tribal Area, which consists of seven districts or “agencies.”
The counterinsurgency operations have targeted mainly militant bases in six of the seven tribal agencies and are said to have flushed out militants from most of the rugged mountainous territory.
Touting counterinsurgency campaign
Authorities flew a group of reporters to the front line near the Afghan border early this month to showcase the military gains.
Major General Nadir Zeb, the inspector general of Pakistan’s paramilitary Frontier Corps, said almost all of the tribal districts were under the control of Taliban and al-Qaida militants until three years ago.
“And now in 2011 there are places, like maybe a little portion in Mohmand, which God willing we will clear soon, a little portion in Khyber agency that is Teerah valley, and a little portion in Mamoonzai that is Orakzai agency and central Kurram," said Zeb. "Very thin belt is left. The rest is all cleared.”
Families returning home
Authorities say the restoration of government control has encouraged tens of thousands of families, displaced by the rise of militancy in the region and subsequent counterinsurgency operations, to return to their homes.
Tim Irwin of the United Nations refugees agency said many of those he talks to feel they will be able to resume their lives.
"Many of them were farmers and they were confident that they would be able to again go back to being a farmer," said Irwin. "So my impression was that they either had direct experience of perhaps having gone back to the region and seen for themselves, or they have enough information that they felt that they were making an informed decision."
One tribal elder in the Mohmand district said extremists linked to the Taliban had taken the entire population hostage and were forcing young men to join their ranks. But life, he said, is back to normal for his community.
And several hundred children are back in this school near the front lines - just a few kilometers from the Afghan border - once used as a militant stronghold.
Anti-militant campaign questioned
Despite being allies in the anti-terror war, American and NATO-led forces have long accused Pakistan's military of not preventing cross-border militant raids into Afghanistan. Pakistani authorities say they have "more or less" addressed those concerns. In turn, they now charge that since NATO forces have left their outposts in Afghanistan's Kunnar and Nuristan provinces, fugitive Pakistani militants and Afghan insurgents have been able to regroup and try to stage a comeback.
"That is where our main problem is, because we have carried out so many operations, but each time we find again this thing is coming up because of the Kunnar province and that is where they concentrate and come back," said Zeb.
Counterterrorism officials in Washington recently questioned the effectiveness of the Pakistan military’s anti-militant campaign, especially its ability to hold areas it has regained. Even critics at home are skeptical about the claims of battlefield progress in the traditionally hostile tribal region.
Ayaz Wazir, Pakistan’s former ambassador to Kabul, said, "Tell me where have you pacified the area? Mohmand is still burning, South Waziristan is still burning. Bajaur is still burning, Orakzai is still burning.”
Pakistani army commanders, however, dispute the criticism. Army spokesman General Athar Abbas said, "We are going very cautiously. We want to be very surefooted that when we establish a successful military operation’s control, then the people should support that, the people should take the ownership of that, and therefore you see sort of cautious and a slow pace in the operation.”
While Pakistan points to its success in six of the border districts, the United States and many independent observers see the remaining North Waziristan tribal territory as a major threat to efforts to bring peace and stability to Afghanistan.
North Waziristan is home to the al-Qaida-linked Haqqani network, which is believed to be organizing deadly cross-border raids on U.S and NATO forces. The Haqqani network - rumored to have ties to Pakistan's spy agency, the ISI - apparently is not hostile to the Pakistani army. But the army denies that it has gone easy on the group.
“That is not true and this is completely a false allegation," said Abbas.
The military points out it has more than 30,000 troops in North Waziristan. It claims that the impression the region is beyond the control of the state - and has become a center of terrorism - is “mere exaggeration.”
“... they do have some militants in these areas, they do have some pockets in these areas of our border," said Abbas. "But then the major problem is in Afghanistan.”
But while Pakistan is apparently reluctant to go after the militant bases in North Waziristan, suspected U.S drone strikes have intensified in the border region, killing dozens of insurgents, including high-profile al-Qaida figures.
Pakistan’s latest claims of progress in the war against terror networks on its soil come weeks after a secret U.S helicopter raid located and killed fugitive al-Qaida chief Osama bin Laden in the Pakistani garrison town of Abbottabad.
Unresolved trust issues
While the country’s civilian and military leaders deny any link to bin Laden’s hideout, suspicions remain that “rogue elements” within the Pakistani security establishment have ties to al-Qaida operatives.
Admiral Mike Mullen, the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, made that evident during a trip to Islamabad late last month.
“I harbor no illusions about the difficulties ahead, nor do I leave here misinformed about the trust which still needs to be rebuilt between our two militaries,” he said.
As the United States prepares to begin a phased withdrawal of its combat troops from Afghanistan, U.S. military commanders believe Pakistan’s counter-insurgency efforts in the border region are vital for a smooth transfer of security responsibility from NATO to Afghan forces. For now, though, the issue of going after militants in North Waziristan remains a source of friction between Washington and Islamabad.