Displaced Pakistanis prepare for risky return to South Waziristan

After a year spent without work and queuing for handouts, families who sought refuge here from an offensive against the Pakistani Taliban are eager to see their homes and farms again. But they doubt they'll be able to sleep peacefully when they get there.

Officials say the high-profile offensive they launched last fall in South Waziristan near the Afghan border has secured the area, and they are planning to start sending 400,000 displaced people back early next month.

However, evidence from South Waziristan and other areas where the military has gone after the Taliban suggest that relatively few militants were killed and the rest didn't go very far, an illustration of how difficult it is for Pakistan to defeat a force that has bloodied its cities and targeted Americans.

"We are very worried that if we go back to our houses, that the Taliban will be there," said Malik Yusaf Jan, a Mahsud tribesman who brought his extended family of 22 to Dera Ismail Khan, rented a small house and put up a couple of tents in the courtyard for the rest of the family. "We want a permanent solution to South Waziristan, a permanent peace."

The military characterized the offensive as a decisive blitz to evict Pakistani Taliban and Al Qaeda militants from their heavily fortified bunkers and redoubts. The effort, Pakistani leaders told the United States, would be proof of Islamabad's commitment to eradicating terrorism and confirmation of its value as a trusted ally.

Although the army dispersed militants from what was long regarded as their primary stronghold, it didn't wipe them out or even significantly diminish their numbers, experts say. Commanders escaped to other tribal areas along the Afghan border, some fleeing well before the offensive even began.

And as the government prepares for the return of displaced villagers, recent militant attacks on military check points in South Waziristan suggest that the insurgents could reemerge.

"It's clear it's not a success story," said Khadim Hussain, coordinator at the Aryana Institute for Regional Research and Advocacy, a think tank in Islamabad, the Pakistani capital. "If you ask the people who have been displaced, most would tell you that most of the Taliban commanders are still living in the forests and mountains of South Waziristan. That's why they think they cannot return."

The Pakistani Taliban's campaign of suicide bombings of mosques, markets, police stations and government buildings has killed hundreds of civilians and police officers, making elimination of the insurgent group a top priority for the military. But the group is also increasingly seen as a direct threat to the United States, particularly after its role in helping finance and engineer Pakistani American Faisal Shahzad's botched attempt this year to detonate a car bomb in New York's Times Square.

In other tribal areas where the military has declared victory, insurgents are seeping back, even as families begin returning. Though the army maintains a strong presence in the Mohmand region in the northern part of the tribal areas, insurgents there have blown up 66 schools, including at least three this month.

Top Pakistani military leaders said it would take six more months to clear insurgents from adjacent Bajaur, a region where the army had trumpeted a resounding victory over militants early this year.

Now it's the turn of the tribal people of South Waziristan, who have been subsisting in this dusty, chaotic city, many unable to find work and weary of standing in line for handouts at a cricket stadium.

Government officials say electricity and water supplies should be restored early next month, hospitals will reopen and tents will be issued to families whose homes have been destroyed, said Arshad Khan, director general of the tribal areas' Disaster Management Authority, which will oversee the return of residents. Each family will also get a $290 stipend and food rations for six months.

Of the 400,000 who were displaced by the offensive, 70,000 are expected to return within two weeks.

What they want most of all, however, is security.

There already are signs that the Taliban has begun resurfacing. Last month, militants in South Waziristan killed eight Pakistani troops in two ambushes within a four-day span. Taliban fighters have been circulating pamphlets among the displaced, warning that their lives will be in danger if they return, said an activist with a nongovernmental organization who spoke in Dera Ismail Khan on condition of anonymity to ensure his own safety.

The Taliban's second in command, Wali-ur Rehman, told Reuters in September that the insurgency had at least 2,500 fighters in South Waziristan, and about 18,000 throughout the tribal belt along the Afghan border.

"To begin a return of refugees now is unrealistic," said Imtiaz Gul, an Islamabad security analyst and author of "The Most Dangerous Place: Pakistan's Lawless Frontier," a look at militancy in Pakistan's tribal areas.

"Taliban militants are a mobile enemy. They don't sit in one place, waiting for the army or drone to come. The army may have dislodged them from South Waziristan, but many hide here and there, and when they get an opportunity, they will strike."

Pakistani authorities say the military's continued presence in South Waziristan should reassure those who return. They acknowledge that the army doesn't have the manpower to post troops in every village, and say it will rely on cooperation and intelligence from the people to help keep the Taliban from reemerging.

"Unless they're totally erased, the Taliban will try to come back," said Khan, the disaster management official. "We can't expect them to hold wreaths of flowers for returning refugees."

Many of the displaced wonder what they will find when they do return. Malik Mukaram Khan, 45, said military airstrikes and mortar fire razed his farmhouse in the village of Sararogha, destroyed his apple orchards and the small fabric shop he ran, and killed his cow and two dozen sheep.

He'll have to start from scratch to support an extended family of 16. But it probably will be better than scraping by in Dera Ismail Khan, where no one will give Mahsud tribesmen work out of fear that they may be Taliban-linked. Baitullah Mahsud, the Pakistani Taliban leader killed by a drone strike last year, was of the same tribe, as is his successor, Hakimullah Mahsud. But most Mahsud tribesmen are not members of the militant organization.

When he considers the future, Khan said, he thinks short-term: "I think I may not be able to survive the next month."

alex.rodriguez@latimes.com

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