This windswept, sand-colored town in the badlands of western Pakistan is empty now, cleared of the militants who once claimed it as their capital. But its main brick buildings, intact and thick with dust, tell not of an epic battle, but of sudden flight.
A month after the Pakistani military began its push into the Taliban stronghold of South Waziristan, militants appear to have been dispersed, not eliminated, with most simply fleeing. That recurring pattern illustrated the problems facing the Obama administration as it enters its final days of a decision on its strategy for Afghanistan.
Success in this region, in the remote mountains near the Afghan border, could have a direct bearing on how many more American troops are ultimately sent to Afghanistan, and how long they must stay.
Pakistan has shown increased willingness to tackle the problem, launching sweeping operations in the north and west of the country this year, but American officials are still urging it to do more, most recently in a letter from President Obama to Pakistan’s president, Asif Ali Zardari, over the weekend.
On Tuesday, the military escorted journalists on a tour of the area, where it closely restricts access, showing piles of things they had seized, including weapons, bombs, photos and even a long, curly wig. “It all started from here,” said Brig. Muhammed Shafiq, the commander here. “This is the most important town in South Waziristan.”
But lasting success has been elusive, tempered by an agile enemy that has moved easily from one part of the tribal areas to the next — and even deeper into Pakistan — virtually every time it has been challenged.
American analysts expressed surprise at the relatively light fighting and light Pakistani Army casualties — seven soldiers in five days in Sararogha — supporting their suspicions that the Taliban fighters from the local Mehsud tribe and the foreign fighters who are their allies, including a large contingent of Uzbeks, have headed north or deeper into the mountains. In comparison, 51 Americans were killed in eight days of fighting in Falluja, Iraq, in 2004.
“That’s what bothers me,” an American intelligence officer said. “Where are they?”
The Pakistani military says it has learned from past failures in a region where it lost hundreds in fighting before. It spent weeks bombing the area before its 30,000 troops entered. It struck alliances with neighboring tribes.
But the pending campaign was no secret, allowing time for local people and militants to escape, similar to what happens during American operations in Afghanistan.
“They are fleeing in all directions,” said a senior Pakistani security official, who did not want to be identified while discussing national security issues. “The Uzbeks are fleeing to Afghanistan and the north, and the Mehsuds are fleeing to any possible place they can think of.”
But there was some fighting, as destruction in Sararogha’s market area shows, and the fact that the military now occupies the area is something of a success, analysts say. American officials have expressed measured praise for the Pakistani operation so far.
“The Pakistani Army has done pretty well, and they have learned lessons from the Swat campaign, including the use of close-air support from their fighter jets,” said a senior American intelligence official, referring to the army’s first offensive this spring.
But big questions remain: How long will the military be able to hold the territory? And once they leave, will the militants simply come back?
“Are they really winning the people — this is the big question,” said Talat Masood, a military analyst and former general in Islamabad, the capital. “They have weakened the Taliban tactically, but have they really won the area if the people are not with them?”Winning them over will not be easy. <Continue reading.>