- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 22, 2010

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan | As Pakistan delays a long-awaited offensive in North Waziristan, the remote area dubbed the last bastion of indigenous Taliban and al Qaeda, Taliban insurgents are quietly staging a comeback in several districts and territories where the military earlier declared victories.

Simultaneously, Islamist fighters are spreading into parts of the Pakistani tribal belt that previously had no Taliban presence as they also extend their reach and bolster roots in main areas of Pakistan.

Officials in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) Secretariat said recently the Taliban, along with foreign fighters from al Qaeda and other militant groups, are regaining control and safe haven in Bajaur, Orakzai and Mohmand tribal districts, in addition to extending their influence in the Khyber region.

The officials, who based their assessments on information provided by local government officials and intelligence agents based in these areas, said that large groups of heavily armed Taliban were recently observed on patrol in large vehicles in all these districts. They also were collecting money in different areas of these districts.

The officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said that while Taliban and foreign fighters currently are not harming local residents, they are spreading the message they are back and that residents should stop helping government forces or else face severe punishment.

FATA is made up of seven tribal districts and, in addition to the aforementioned areas, includes North Waziristan, South Waziristan and Kurram Agency.

In Bajaur recently, militants from Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), Pakistan’s version of the Afghan group, distributed handbills and put posters on walls in various areas of the district stating “TTP will continue its fight in Bajaur against the U.S. and its allies.”

The militants warned local militias to cease operations against the militants or face the consequences.

In February 2009, Maj. Gen. Tariq Khan, inspector general of the paramilitary Frontier Corps (FC), a unit mainly responsible for security in the FATA, declared the Taliban was defeated in Bajaur and its defeat was not a “seasonal” halt in hostilities.

However, FATA Secretary for Security Tariq Hayat stated in April that he fears the Taliban could recapture cleared areas of the district.

A military offensive was launched by the Pakistani army in August 2008 against Taliban and al Qaeda fighters in Bajaur. The region had been under Taliban control since early 2007.

One sign of the Taliban’s return to Bajaur was seen in the heavy fighting between the militia and security forces on June 16. A total of 38 people from both sides were killed.

In Orakzai tribal district, Taliban fighters also are returning. The district is viewed as a major hub for Pakistani Taliban and al Qaeda fighters. On June 1, the Pakistani army declared victory over the Taliban and its foreign allies during a visit to the region by a senior army officer.

However, several Orakzai tribesmen living in the nearby town of Hangu told The Washington Times that the Taliban and al Qaeda still control their old bases at Ghiljo, Daburi and other areas and were not defeated.

The tribesmen said that although recent military operations may have dislodged a parallel government structure in some areas, such as Taliban courts and jails, in other areas the militants remain in place.

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