Engineer Liu Zhangteng says he feels “very comfortable” when he walks to work at his construction site in the mountains of northwest Pakistan. It takes the presence of 1,500 local soldiers to sustain his tranquility.
Liu’s employer, China’s Sinohydro Corp., is completing the biggest building project in Pakistan’s tribal region along the Afghan border, where the army is fighting Taliban militants. The U.S.-funded Gomal Zam dam is a key part of Pakistan’s effort to undermine the appeal of Islamic guerrillas in Waziristan, whose northern region U.S. military chief Admiral Mike Mullen calls the world’s “epicenter of terrorism.”
The dam’s troops are among tens of thousands keeping control in South Waziristan and other areas that the army seized back from Taliban rule last year. Pakistan’s army commander, General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, is likely to underscore that insecurity as he fends off U.S. pressure for a new offensive during talks to conclude tomorrow in Washington, said political analyst Talat Masood, a retired Pakistani lieutenant general.
Pakistan’s government has failed to establish firm civilian authority or genuine popular support in the areas it recaptured, say Masood and Ashraf Ali, executive director of the FATA Research Center in Islamabad. Its army has stayed close to the main roads and failed to engage Taliban who have re-infiltrated South Waziristan, according to a White House report to Congress quoted early this month by the New York Times and other U.S. news organizations.
A White House statement said President Barack Obama joined yesterday’s U.S.-Pakistani talks, in which the State Department said the U.S. planned to again press Pakistan to step up attacks on militants. “Clearly, while we’ve seen aggressive action by the Pakistani military in recent months, more has to be done,” , U.S. State Department spokesman Philip J. Crowley said yesterday.
The dam is to generate electricity and irrigate farmland for residents whose support the government needs for its fight against militants. A more peaceful south may free Pakistani troops for an offensive in North Waziristan sought by the U.S.
Construction began in 2002 and was delayed for three years after Taliban fighters kidnapped two Chinese engineers from the project in 2004. One died in a Pakistan army rescue operation.
The dam is 92 percent built, its project director, Colonel Muhammad Zaheer of the army’s Frontier Works Organization said in an interview at the construction site.
Its completion, plus the army’s construction of 220 kilometers (137 miles) of roads, will represent “the first time the government has actually implemented any of its many promises to bring development to South Waziristan,” said the FATA center’s Ali.
“That’s the hopeful part,” Ali said.
The center studies Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), the border zone with Afghanistan that includes Waziristan and serves as a base for Taliban, al-Qaeda and allied Islamic militants.
While the army occupation has brought some calm to South Waziristan, it’s not clear whether the government can win popular support and undercut militancy, Ali said. After years in which the Taliban have killed 800 traditional tribal leaders in the FATA region, the government has been trying to establish an anti-Taliban leadership among the local Pashtun tribes, he said.
“They have had no success,” Ali said in an Oct. 10 phone interview. “Candidates are reluctant to come forward because they don’t trust the government to protect them and to work cooperatively with the tribes.”
During a reporter’s visit last month to South Waziristan, a rocky, mountainous district the size of the U.S. state of Delaware, Pakistani troops patrolled the roads in pickup trucks mounted with machine guns. Taliban gunmen have killed at least 10 Pakistani soldiers in small-scale attacks this month, according to reports in the newspaper Dawn -- a toll that the army’s press office declined to confirm.
The army’s presence in South Waziristan has reduced Taliban attacks across the border into Afghanistan’s Paktika province, its governor, Mohibullah Samim, said in an Oct. 11 phone interview.
On Oct. 16 last year, the army moved into South Waziristan to clear about 10,000 Taliban guerrillas based in the homeland of the Mehsud tribe. While other Pakistan-based Taliban mainly fight U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan, the Mehsud faction had led a domestic insurgency, hitting Pakistani government targets.
More than 200,000 Mehsud civilians -- most of the area’s population -- fled before the fighting started and have spent the past year as refugees in nearby districts. While the army and government promise security and development help to those who go home, villages remain sparsely inhabited as civilians have resisted government appeals to return, tribal elders say.
The U.S. government agreed in July to pay $108 million for the dam. It will generate 17.4 megawatts of electricity starting next April, much of it for communities in and near South Waziristan, the Frontier Works Organization’s Zaheer said. Pakistan’s power production this year has fallen 5,000 megawatts or more short of demand, the nation’s Water and Power Development Authority has said.
The government’s inability to stabilize recaptured areas such as South Waziristan and Swat, northwest of Islamabad, has left the army “literally pinned down,” delaying the possibility of any assault on North Waziristan, which now is the main base for the Taliban, al-Qaeda and other militants, Mullen, the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in an Oct. 16 interview on Bloomberg Television.
An assault on North Waziristan “could easily backfire” and “push militants back into the south,” Masood said in a phone interview from Islamabad.