DERA ISMAIL KHAN, Pakistan -- The Pakistani army's latest offensive against the Taliban in South Waziristan, probably the country's most significant anti-terror operation since 2001, so far has failed to convince residents of the frontier area that the state is finally determined to wipe out the Islamic extremists.
Tribesmen from the Mehsud clan who are flooding out to escape the fighting in the lawless region that borders Afghanistan, guardedly tell of dreadful subjugation by Taliban extremists and their al Qaida allies, who control the area.
The evacuees also remain unconvinced that the army has turned against militants. None of the roughly dozen people interviewed by McClatchy reported seeing any ground troops in the war zone.
Even the anti-Taliban militia, made up of the few Mehsuds willing to stand up to the extremists, aren't sure whether they can have faith in the army, even though their militia is quietly supported by the state.
"The government has used the people like toilet paper, used them and thrown them away," thundered the spiritual leader and founder of the anti-Taliban Mehsud militia, Maulvi Sher Mohammad, in an interview.
The Mehsud tribesmen have been forced to abandon their homes for the third or fourth time since 2004 to escape periodic army operations against the Taliban, only to see the authorities cut peace deals and to discover upon their return that their area was under even tighter extremist control. The Pakistani Taliban is based in the part of South Waziristan that's occupied by the Mehsuds.
A deep, corrosive cynicism persists even though Pakistan carried out a successful operation earlier this year that largely eliminated the Taliban from the Swat valley. The early indications of the South Waziristan ground offensive, launched on Oct. 17, are that it's more serious than anything the army has undertaken in the past.
Nevertheless, interviews suggest that Pakistan remains a long way from winning the hearts and minds of the people of South Waziristan, although doing so is essential to clearing this rugged area of Islamic extremists, Afghan insurgents and al Qaida commanders, who've all made it their sanctuary.
Many of the refugees from South Waziristan also claim that the homes of ordinary people are being bombed and that civilians are dying in an intense and indiscriminate aerial bombardment, further eroding their support for the operation.
Mohammad, a burly cleric who lives behind high compound walls in the town of Dera Ismail Khan on the edge of South Waziristan, guarded by gun-toting young men, said that he wouldn't ask his fellow tribesmen to rise up yet.
The army is hoping that a traditional militia from the tribe, known as a lashkar, will fight alongside it. Mohammad's outfit, known as the "Abdullah Group" after former Guantanamo Bay prison camp inmate Abdullah Mehsud, is the state's best hope.
"We cannot fight alongside the army because my people do not yet know whether the army and the Taliban are friends or enemies," said Mohammad. "When we see the army crush them (the Taliban), then we'll believe."
Three times in the past, the army has agreed to a ceasefire and peace terms with the Pakistani Taliban in South Waziristan. Each time, the Taliban took bloody revenge on those who'd sided with the state.
Mehsuds remember bitterly how in 2005, following such a deal, a Pakistani army general literally embraced the then-Taliban chief Baitullah Mehsud, and called him "a soldier of peace." A U.S. missile strike killed the militant leader in August.
The army complains that it was never before given a solid political mandate to rout the Taliban until this year, and that Pakistani public opinion previously didn't favor fighting a movement that claimed it was acting in the name of Islam.
Critics allege that the military, especially its Inter-Services Intelligence spy agency, saw strategic benefit in having Taliban guard Pakistan's northwestern border.
Few of the South Waziristan refugees interviewed by McClatchy were willing to candidly speak about the Taliban, out of fear that they'll have to go back to face the militants.
"It is 100 percent wrong to say that the Mehsud are in favor of the Taliban," said a teacher, who asked for his name not to be used and who left his home in the Ladha area of South Waziristan. "We only 'support' the Taliban when we're there (in South Waziristan) to save our lives and our property."
The leadership and foot soldiers of the Taliban are dominated by the Mehsud tribe, whose home territory occupies around half of South Waziristan. The army offensive is confined to that part of South Waziristan occupied by the Mehsud tribe Under Baitullah, the traditional tribal leaders of the Mehsuds were systematically butchered or driven out of South Waziristan, removing a rival source of authority.
Baitullah also turned the Pakistani Taliban from a group that fought "infidel" international forces in Afghanistan to a movement at war with its own Muslim homeland, a twist of jihadist logic that came straight from al Qaida.
Many Mehsuds said they'd support an operation if they thought it was real. Instead, some of them said that the country's army acts intermittently against the Taliban just to keep U.S. aid flowing.
"This fight (in South Waziristan) is for American dollars. The government always has some deal with the Taliban. It is ordinary people who suffer," said student Zahidullah Mehsud, who thought he was around 19 years old, as he lined up at a registration center for those displaced by the operation. "This is all an ISI game."
(Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent.)
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