DAMADOLA, Pakistan — The Pakistani flag now flies over the complex of caves and tunnels that al Qaida and local Taliban extremists had made their logistical hub, and a major infiltration route into and out of Afghanistan is under government control.
In the latest example of Pakistan's continuing crackdown, following armed interventions in Swat and South Waziristan and the detention of several leaders of the Afghan Taliban, the Pakistani military Tuesday invited reporters to Damadola to show that it had completed operations in yet another part of the country's lawless tribal area.
Damadola, a cluster of villages nestled up against a mountain range that marks the Afghan border, was the last redoubt of the Pakistani Taliban in Bajaur and a former hideout of al Qaida deputy leader Ayman al Zawahiri. A U.S. drone strike targeting Zawahiri in Damadola in late 2006 missed him but struck a religious school, killing some 80 people, and helped provoke a full-blown Islamist insurrection in Pakistan.
Residents of Damadola have now raised a tribal militia that they say is 10,000-strong and can assemble on short notice. Around 1,000 members of the militia, known as a lashkar, danced, joyously waving their Kalashnikov rifles, to greet reporters on the first media visit since Damadola was taken last month.
"The Taliban used to slit peoples' throats, burn schools and hospitals," said Malik Abdul Aziz Khan, a leader of the local militia. "We have now understood what kind of people the Taliban are. We formed this lashkar for our own sake, for the sake of our country."
The unpaid militia will provide defense as Pakistani army forces shift their focus to other parts of the tribal area. The Frontier Corps paramilitary unit, which led the operation in Bajaur, is expected shortly to begin an operation in Orakzai.
Orakzai and North Waziristan are the two remaining regions of the seven agency tribal belt where Taliban and al Qaida extremists are still able to take refuge in large numbers. An offensive in South Waziristan that began in October is nearly complete.
"Orakzai is an event waiting to happen," said Maj. Gen. Tariq Khan, the head of the Frontier Corps.
The military offensive to subdue Bajaur, which the U.S. supported with funds, training and equipment, began in August 2008. The area's population of around 500,000 was almost entirely forced to flee the military offensive, living in refugee camps in the adjacent North West Frontier Province.
"Bajaur has been a long operation. The Pakistan flag is flying here for the first time since 1947 (when Pakistan became an independent country)," Khan said. "In 2008, this was an independent state run by an Afghan commander, Qari Zai ur Rehman . . . We can now switch to policing operations here."
All but 65,000 residents have returned, according to the Pakistani military, although international aid agencies estimate that at least 200,000 are still internally displaced. The operation inflicted extensive damage to homes and infrastructure in Bajaur, but Khan said there's been no foreign funding for rehabilitation.
While attention has focused on remote Waziristan, Bajaur was much more closely connected to extremist activity in the frontier province, as it's close to the provincial capital, Peshawar, and to Swat, the huge valley that the military recaptured from the Taliban after a major offensive last year.
Militants dug a complex of 156 caves, tunnels and training centers into the hillsides in Damadola. The ridge above — part of a mountain range known as Mulla Said — once housed the al Qaida headquarters, Khan said. Zawahiri is said to have had a house in the area, though he hasn't recently been linked to Bajaur.
Some 2,200 militants were killed or injured in Bajaur since the operation started in 2008, while 149 soldiers died and 612 were wounded, the army said.
However, Pakistani military officials complained that U.S.-led coalition forces across the border in Afghanistan's Kunar province had insufficient strength to secure the frontier. They also asserted that the extremist uprising in Bajaur was partly directed out of Afghanistan.
Khan said that an influential landowner across the border in Kunar, whom he called the "Khan (chief) of Kunar," had forced coalition troops, under the International Security Assistance Force, to change their rules of engagement, by alleging that innocent people were being killed. Outside experts said they weren't certain to whom he was referring.
"There are not enough troops on the ground (in Kunar). There is no doubt in the intent. but there is doubt in the capacity of these people (ISAF) to control the border," said Khan, the Pakistani general. "If he (the Khan of Kunar) is going to influence military co-operation between the United States and Pakistan, then I think we're going down the wrong road."
According to Khan, there were 5,000 Pakistani troops in Bajaur, while the international coalition had just 300 soldiers in Kunar under Task Force Rock. There was no immediate response from ISAF.
(Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent.)
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