KHAR, PAKISTAN // The Pakistani army is in need of a good news story following the controversial peace deal struck with militants in the Swat Valley, where the militants have control of increasing amounts of territory despite recent military operations. The United States has repeatedly criticised Pakistan for striking deals with militants that it claims afford the Taliban the space to regroup and to increase its attacks on coalition forces.
So the army took a group of journalists to Bajaur on Saturday to demonstrate the success of a military operation and to scotch reports that it had struck a controversial peace deal with militants. Major Gen Tariq Khan, the commander of military operations in five of Pakistan's seven tribal agencies, said his paramilitary Frontier Corps had driven militants out of Bajaur, a key border stronghold where Pakistani forces have waged a six-month long campaign against them.
Major Gen Khan denied reports - and claims by a militant leader, Faqir Mohammmed - that the military had struck a peace deal. He said the Taliban had been defeated and that the Taliban's announcement of a ceasefire was "propaganda". Asked whether the militants had melted away from Bajaur to redeploy to Afghanistan to launch a spring campaign against Western forces, Major Gen Khan replied: "They have lost. They have lost their cohesion here. The resistance has collapsed."
Of particular contention is that an operation against the overall leader of the Pakistani Taliban, Baitullah Mehsud, in South Waziristan was ended last year after he and his militants entered a populated area. Instead of pressing on against the militants, the army made a deal with them, it is claimed. A peace deal is also in place with militants in North Waziristan agencies. Both North and South Waziristan are sanctuaries for al Qa'eda and Taliban militants on the Afghan border, where US drones have carried out more than 20 missile strikes since September.
The announcement of victory in Bajaur came as the US government held three days of talks with the foreign ministers of Afghanistan and Pakistan as part of the US effort to chart a new course in its war against terrorists. Major Gen Khan and the senior military spokesman, Major Gen Athar Abbas, underscored the total lack of government control in Bajaur before the operation was launched. Bajaur's tribal leaders were assassinated and the militants had control of all the area's roads, they said.
Journalists were driven to the village of Inayat Kill, past a neighbouring town whose market had been razed by the military during the fighting in "Operation Sher Dil", which was launched in Bajaur in September. Major Gen Khan said more than 1,500 militants were killed, along with about 100 soldiers, during the operation. At its peak, more than 300,000 people fled the fighting. About 150,000 are still living in tented refugee camps.
The military paraded a supposed Taliban prisoner. The bearded man, in his 20s, was chained to a white plastic garden chair placed on a well-tended lawn in front of an officer's mess that was staffed by flunkies wearing cricket sweaters and white shalwar kameez. "I am sorry for fighting," he said, but he denied the charge he had been responsible for training suicide bombers. As he was led away, members of the media, who had questioned and photographed the captive, made vague accusations that the Pakistan military had violated the Geneva Conventions by parading the prisoner.
Journalists were also taken to the neighbouring tribal agency of Mohmand, where the military had launched limited operations against militants. During the visit an explosion from a blast a few miles away was heard. It was later learnt that three security men were killed in a landmine blast in an area supposedly under government control. Major Gen Khan said his forces had more mopping-up operations to conduct. But he was upbeat about progress not only in Bajaur and Mohmand but also in five of the seven Pakistan's tribal agencies where his men are deployed.
He said he had largely restored "a reasonable state of stability", in the agencies under his command. "If you are asking me about five agencies I think somewhere by the end of the year or so we would, more or less, be over with the military operations," he said. The display of the "success story", as the general called it, came as Pakistan faces criticism for failing to dislodge militants from the nearby Swat region.
Pakistani Taliban militants announced on Tuesday an indefinite ceasefire in the Swat following an agreement by authorities to enforce Islamic law in the valley, which until 2007 was one of Pakistan's prime tourist destinations. The government said this month 1,200 civilians and 180 members of the security forces had been killed in the valley since 2007. The human rights group Amnesty International said between 200,000 and 500,000 people had been displaced from their homes in Swat by the violence.
A former militant, Sufi Mohammad, who has acted as an intermediary in the talks, yesterday gave a deadline of March 15 for the enforcement of Sharia. "The government announced enforcement of Sharia, but so far no practical step has been taken and we are not satisfied," Mr Mohammad said in Mingora. He said he was also unhappy over a delay in an exchange of prisoners and urged both the Taliban and the government to release people they were holding by mid-March.