- 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.

The victory announced by Pakistani authorities in Orakzai also came before several clashes between Taliban and security forces that claimed several lives. The next day after the June 1 declaration, scores of Taliban fighters attacked security forces, and the fight led to the deaths of six soldiers. Pakistani authorities reported that 30 Taliban fighters were killed.

“The military operation is not yet over in Orakzai. I think [the army] made the announcement of victory in haste,” said journalist Rahimullah Yousafzai.

In the Swat-Malakand region, where the Taliban had established until June 2009a parallel state infrastructure, which was ousted during a major military offensive, local officials report the situation is stable but Taliban fighters continued killing locals they consider their enemies. Swat-Malakand is part of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, formerly North West Frontier Province (NWFP).

On April 15, a suspected Taliban fighter fatally shot Alamgir Khan and Mukarram Khan, two members of a local defense committee in Swat, and critically injured a third official.

“The targeted killings of peace committee members is extremely worrying,” Mukhtar Yousafzai, head of the Swat Qaumi Jirga, the area’s unofficial local council, told The Times. “Although the military offensive has killed some militants, the peace thus arrived at is never a lasting one. The threats by Taliban are quite concerning, and people reckon this is the beginning of a new phase of religious militancy in the region.”

Visits by a reporter to Swat confirmed that the people remain terrified and apprehensive about a Taliban comeback.

“We have our fears that one day Taliban may return because their head, Maulana Fazlullah, is still alive and sending messages to the local people that he would come back with a vengeance, targeting those who supported security forces against Taliban,” said Riaz, a resident of Kabal, a town in Swat.

The head of Swat Taliban, Fazlullah reportedly was spotted recently in the Afghan province of Nooristan fighting U.S., NATO and Afghan forces along with his hundreds of militants.

Fazlullah is the son-in-law of Maulana Sufi Muhammad, a founder of Tehreek-e-Nafaz-e-Shariat-e-Mohammadi (TNSM), a forerunner of the Pakistani Taliban.

Muhammad declared holy war against the United States after its forces ousted the Taliban regime in Afghanistan in late 2001 after the Sept. 11 attacks. He led about 10,000 militants from Swat-Malakand region to fight U.S. forces. He was released in 2008 by Pakistani authorities after several years of imprisonment in exchange for a deal that called on him to use his influence to moderate the Taliban. But he reneged on the promises and was arrested again. He currently is in a Peshawar jail.

The anti-Taliban offensive in Swat-Malakand that began in May 2009 displaced an estimated 2.5 million people, who fled to neighboring areas.

In the Mohmand tribal district of FATA, the Taliban has restarted staging major attacks on security forces and destroying schools. The attacks followed months when there were no significant attacks by the Taliban in the area.

On June 15, hundreds of Afghan- and Mohmand-based Pakistani Taliban attacked security forces and killed an unknown number of Frontier Corps’ personnel. The bodies of six men were handed over to local tribal leaders by the Taliban but several people are still missing.

In September, the Pakistani military announced it had cleared some 80 percent of the Mohmand area of Taliban and foreign fighters, destroying command-and-control structures.

However, accounts from local residents contradicted the claims and noted the continued presence of large number of militants, particularly in one subdivision called Safi, according to sources in the region.

Pakistani Taliban fighters also are regaining a foothold in the Khyber tribal district. Several Afridi tribesmen from the area told The Times a large number of militants from the TTP and foreign fighters moved into the Tirah valley region and are expanding to other areas.

Tirah is adjacent to Afghanistan’s Tora Bora Mountains, once the redoubt of al Qaeda leaders including Osama bin Laden, who fled from there during bombing in late 2001.

The Khyber tribal district is among the most strategic Pakistan tribal lands and historically is the “doorway to the Indian subcontinent.” The route was used by invaders and traders from the Middle East, Afghanistan and Central Asia over past centuries to enter India.

In the current war, the district remains important for its nearness to Peshawar, the capital of Khyber-Pakhtoonkhwa province. Security of the province is closely linked to the situation in Khyber Agency. About 70 percent of U.S. and NATO military supplies arriving at Pakistani seaports pass through the Khyber tribal district before reaching Afghanistan.

Pakistani Taliban and al Qaeda forces have made disruptions of the supply line a major goal. However, despite destroying more than 500 supply vehicles since 2007 in numerous armed attacks, the Taliban so far has failed to disrupt the supply flow.

“The biggest reason for this has been that Taliban [and] al Qaeda could not get themselves entrenched among the local tribes and brought a large number of fighters there,” said Shakoor Khan, a Peshawar-based expert on security affairs. “However, with more militants coming and holing up in Khyber Agency, there would be a great threat to these supplies.”

In recent months the Taliban also has spread to the largest Pakistani province, the Punjab, where its numbers multiplied many times and terrorist attacks have become more lethal.

The expansion of the Taliban to the Punjab began after the South Waziristan military offensive was launched in October. South Waziristan is a major stronghold of the TTP and its leader, Hakimullah Mehsud.

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