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SARAROGHA, Pakistan – Driving through high mountain passes with mud brick houses perched on cliffs overhead and caves down below where Taliban fighters used to hide, Brig. Hassan Hayat talks excitedly about the Pakistan army's latest operations in these long-hostile tribal areas.
"Now we are getting into the olives," he said as the road passed through groves of trees, explaining how the military has been bringing in Italian olive trees to graft onto local growers' trees to improve production. "Some 400 trees we've already done."
He had wanted to plant daffodils, he mentioned at another point in the trip. But it turned out the flowers would be too hard to export. Bee farms have proven more productive.
After battling Taliban militants in the tribal areas bordering Afghanistan for over a decade, the Pakistani military is engaged in a new fight, aiming to win over a population who are returning to their homes in the region after years living as refugees in their own country and who harbor a longstanding mistrust of the central government.
The military is rebuilding infrastructure and setting up economic and job projects for the population in South Waziristan, one of the seven tribal regions along the border with Afghanistan. It's a classic counterinsurgency tactic similar to that used by the U.S. military — with mixed results — in Iraq and Afghanistan. The aim is to decrease support for militants and bring peace to a troubled region — in this case, tribal areas that have long been sanctuaries for the Taliban and other militant groups fueling instability in both Afghanistan and Pakistan.
"Once the people are more aware, more educated, they will not take up arms but go for the development and be a positive contributor in society," said Hayat.
With a month to go before nationwide elections that will see a transfer of power from one elected government to another for the first time in Pakistan's history, security will be a major campaign issue. Since many of Pakistan's security problems are linked to what happens in the tribal regions, the success or failure of the counterinsurgency campaign could have major repercussions for the rest of the country.
Pakistan's battle against the Taliban began after the U.S. invasion of neighboring Afghanistan in 2001, which pushed many militants across the border into the tribal regions of northwestern Pakistan. There, they found allies among a local population historically neglected by Pakistan's central government. Much of the population is Pashtun, the ethnic group which has been the backbone of the Taliban. Working out of the tribal areas, the Pakistani branch of the Taliban launched a campaign of attacks inside Pakistan.
South Waziristan became the main sanctuary for the Pakistani Taliban, until the army launched a large ground invasion in late 2009. Amid the assault, some 300,000 of the territory's 545,000 people fled to other parts of Pakistan. Entire villages and towns were left virtually empty, particularly in the eastern part of the territory where fighting was heaviest. But the offensive largely broke the Taliban hold, with many fighters who survived going into hiding or fleeing into Afghanistan or the neighboring Pakistani territory of North Waziristan, which remains a militant stronghold.
"The population was hostage to these people," said Hayat. "They had their own rule of law. Whatever they wanted they could do in this area."
But many residents have a softer recollection of Taliban rule. Many said they didn't have a problem with the Taliban and only fled because of the fighting.
"During the Taliban time the situation was good generally. The Taliban have not done anything wrong to anyone. Pakistan and Taliban have the problem," said Sami Ullah, who owns a hotel and restaurant that opened in late March in Sararogha, thanks to the army's rehabilitation efforts.
The army, which essentially runs South Waziristan now, launched the rehabilitation and rebuilding program in 2010. It has grown since, mostly in the eastern part of the territory.
But major challenges remain. Only about 15 percent of residents who fled have been allowed to return, as the military lets them back only at the rate that their towns are rebuilt.
Many of those who have returned complain about lack of compensation and services. They chafe against military restrictions. The army, for example, has stopped mobile phone services, likely to prevent the Taliban from using them to communicate or detonate bombs. No one is allowed to carry weapons, angering tribesmen who consider their rifles a symbol of independence and pride. Anyone entering or leaving South Waziristan is checked against a database of who is allowed in and who is not.
It's also unclear when, if ever, the military will be able to hand over power to a civilian government in South Waziristan, a territory about the size of Delaware.
"The progress is slow," said Abdur Rahim Khan, who is running in the May 11 election for a parliament seat in a South Waziristan district. His own village has not yet been resettled and most of his potential constituents are scattered around the country.
One of the military's most high-profile projects is the roads being built in areas previously only accessible by four-wheel drive, camel or on foot. The U.S. government's development arm is paying for most of the roads. Part of the plan is to open a new corridor to give traders easy access from Afghanistan to Pakistan's central Punjab province, the heart of the country's agriculture and manufacturing.
In Sararogha, local businessman Danet Khan said the new roads save time and money. On the gravel roads, the average vehicle only survived four or five years. Now the smooth two-lane highway through his village cuts travel time dramatically.
The military has built shopping areas where villagers now sell goods out of small shop fronts with roll-down metal doors painted with a green and white Pakistani flag. A barber — something forbidden under the Taliban — cuts hair in one of the stalls, though he says most residents don't need a shave because they still prefer long beards. Hayat would like to bring in a CD shop, something also banned by the Taliban.
Soccer fields, schools, poultry farms and homes for widows have been built, and the military is trying to rehabilitate a leather factory sacked by the Taliban.
With few jobs at home, families here have historically survived on wages from family members sent to work in the Pakistani port city of Karachi or the Persian Gulf. So the army built a vocational school to teach local men skills like computers and electricity repair. Since many people also joined the militants simply because they paid well, the school potentially deprives the Taliban of new recruits.
"They don't have any opportunities. They need something to live on. That's why they joined the Taliban," said one student studying to be an electrician, Sajjad Ahmed.
A cadet college run by Pakistani military officers was provided after requests from local residents who have been starved of quality schools and plagued by an absence of decent teachers.
In the long term, the future of this region will be influenced in large part by what happens in Afghanistan. American troops are scheduled to leave at the end of 2014. Pakistani military officials worry about a repeat of the civil war that followed the 1989 pullout of Soviet forces.
And the final goal of handing South Waziristan to a civilian government is a long way off.
"Right now we are ok and feel safe as long as the army is around, but I am not sure about the future," said one local resident, Malik Fareed Khan.
The tribal areas, known as agencies, have historically been seen as a security buffer between Afghanistan and the rest of Pakistan, administered mostly by government officials appointed by Islamabad and following a different legal system from the rest of the country. That system left a legacy of neglect and a feeling among locals that they don't answer to the central government.
But for real stability, the tribal areas need to be better connected with the rest of Pakistan.
"The military is playing its role but at the end of the day, you need to answer those questions to be successful in bringing total peace," said Hayat.
Associated Press writer Ishtiaq Mahsud contributed to this report from Dera Ismail Khan.
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