SARAROGHA, Pakistan – A school the army says churned out homicide bombers now lies in ruins. Soldiers patrol towns once ruled by militants who gave refuge to Al Qaeda. Left behind are bundles of terror manuals, extremist propaganda and boxes of ammunition and explosives.
Pakistan's latest offensive close to the Afghan border has uprooted Taliban militants from long-held sanctuaries, an action the Obama administration says is crucial to success in Afghanistan amid surging violence against U.S. troops.
But questions remain over whether the insurgents have slipped away into the mountains of South Waziristan or beyond to fight another day as they have done before in the region. Also unclear is whether the army will push its assault into other areas in the northwest where the U.S. says commanders responsible for much of the Afghan insurgency are based.
The army ferried reporters by helicopter to parts of South Waziristan on Tuesday, the only way media can visit the remote and sparsely populated region. Humanitarian workers are also banned, meaning there have been few, if any, independent accounts from the battlefield.
Reporters were shown Ladha and Sararogha towns, which were both militant hubs before the offensive started in mid-October. Commanders said Pakistani troops have retaken most population centers, roads and strategic high ground in the region but that insurgents remain in parts of the countryside.
"The terrorists declared this region would be the graveyard of the Pakistani army, but we proved them otherwise," said Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas.
As well as being the stronghold of the Taliban, Pakistan's deadliest militant network, South Waziristan has long been a refuge for Al Qaeda leaders who fled here following the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in late 2001. It's considered a possible hiding place for Osama bin Laden.
The army has tried three times since 2004 to defeat the Taliban here, but each attempt ended in negotiated truces after the military suffered heavy casualties.
The current offensive was launched after an onslaught of terrorist attacks around the country and the death of Pakistani Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud in a CIA missile strike in August. More than 200,000 people have fled and now live outside the region. There was no sign of civilians in areas visited or flown over Tuesday.
Sararogha was home to a British colonial-era fort where a small contingent of poorly trained paramilitary forces once was based. In January 2008, militants attacked the base and executed 25 of the soldiers. The post and the surrounding town of 10,000 people were abandoned to the insurgents.
The army took the reporters to a rundown school it said the militants used as a base. One room functioned as a courthouse, and documents on Taliban-headed paper were strewn around the floor. One dated March 25, 2009, detailed a property dispute and promised a "decision would be acceptable to both the parties" once Taliban officials had studied the evidence.
Since 2001, the Taliban have taken control of parts of the border area by appealing to the religious solidarity of fellow Muslims and offering better and quicker justice and governance in a region where the few state officials were often lazy and corrupt.
Brig. Mohammed Shafiq, the commander in charge of the Sararogha operation, said 30 militants and seven soldiers were killed in this town. He said the insurgents left behind more than 60 booby traps and 20 suicide jackets.
The army has said the militants have fought back fiercely in places. But one senior officer said resistance was less than expected in Sararogha and that many militants had fled to other parts of the region where they intended to "suck the army" into a guerrilla war. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media.
The army has poured more than 30,000 troops into the region.
With winter fast approaching, the men must now occupy territory — exposed and with ever longer supply lines to protect — to stop the insurgents from returning.
Last week, Qari Husain, a militant commander who has boasted of training homicide bombers, told The Associated Press the militants were preparing for a guerrilla campaign.
"We have quit our strongholds because of our war strategy," said Husain. "We will keep striking back against the army frequently and in this way we will inflict maximum damage on them."
Overall the army says 500 militants and 70 soldiers have been killed in the operation so far. It has presented no evidence to back up the militant death toll. Before the operation began, it estimated there were about 10,000 militants in the region.
In Ladha, which lies closer to the Afghan border, a boarding school allegedly run by Qari Husain was in ruins.
Soldiers laid out hundreds of rounds of ammunition, boxes of grenades, dozens of rifles and anti-aircraft guns and a large cache of bomb-making components and chemicals. Also on display was a large haul of militant propaganda, training materials and bomb-making instructions in English, Urdu and Arabic, Pakistani passports as well dozens of photos of Taliban fighters posing with assault rifle and rocket launchers.
Among the books was a 1985 U.S. Department of Army field manual; a Scout leaders' guide; the Oxford Dictionary of Chemistry and — bizarrely — the science fiction comedy "The Restaurant at the End of the Universe" by Douglas Adams.
Pakistan has been criticized in the past for not attacking militants who do not pose a direct threat to the country but concentrate on fighting in Afghanistan. The network in South Waziristan is focused on attacking the Pakistani state.
Neighboring North Waziristan is the stronghold of Jalaluddin Haqqani and his son Siraj, Afghans who direct the fight against U.S. forces in eastern Afghanistan. The United States has made it clear it wants to see Pakistan target those militants also.
Abbas said the army was concentrating on clearing and holding South Waziristan.
"First we have to consolidate our gains here and secure our tail," he said. "We don't want to open too many fronts at one time and get overstretched."