ISLAMABAD, November 26 (LA Times) - Villagers in nearby districts report an influx of militants escaping the Pakistan army offensive in South Waziristan, a campaign critics say should not have been announced ahead of time.
Since the Pakistani army launched a long-awaited offensive last month to destroy the Taliban in South Waziristan, many militants have fled to nearby districts and begun to establish new strongholds, a strategy that suggests they will regroup and remain a potent threat to the country's weak, U.S.-backed government.
Pakistan Taliban militants have escaped primarily to Kurram and Orakzai, districts outside the battle zone but still within Pakistan's largely ungoverned tribal areas along the Afghan border, villagers there say. The military lacks a significant presence in much of these areas, making them an ideal environment for the Islamic militants to regroup.
Newly arrived militants have terrorized Pashtun residents and replenished their coffers through kidnappings and robberies, villagers said during interviews in the Kurram and Orakzai districts. With AK-47s and rocket launchers slung over their shoulders, the militants have begun patrols through the new territory and have set up checkpoints.
"They come to our houses and terrorize us," said Fareed Ullah, a student in Weedara, a hamlet of mud-walled huts in central Kurram. "They are kidnapping our elders and stealing our cars. We have no way of rising up against them, and there's no government here to help us. . . . Kurram is in trouble because of them."
Pakistani military commanders say that after five weeks of fighting, they are in the final stages of their offensive aimed at crushing Islamic insurgents in South Waziristan, a rugged expanse of mountains and plateaus that for years has served as the primary base of operations for the Pakistani Taliban and as a sanctuary for Al Qaeda fighters.
The 30,000 troops involved in the South Waziristan offensive have reported taking control of almost all the villages and roads once held there by Taliban militants. At the start of the offensive, military commanders and government leaders said they wanted to wrap up the operation before winter set in. They now say they are on track to meet that goal ahead of schedule.
Taliban and Al Qaeda militants were able to easily flee South Waziristan, experts say, because government and military leaders announced their intent to carry out a major offensive in the region weeks before troops moved in. That gave militants ample time to make their escape.
"The strategy has been bad," said Imtiaz Gul, a security analyst based in Islamabad, the Pakistani capital. "You don't carry out operations after making such announcements. This area gives them huge space for mobility. So when crunch time comes, they can disperse to safer places, regroup, reorganize and hit the state somewhere else."
Villagers in Kurram and Orakzai, as well as two Orakzai-based Taliban commanders, say Al Qaeda-aligned Arab, Chechen and Uzbek fighters from South Waziristan are now in their villages.
"From their faces we can see they are foreigners," said Jaleel Rahman, a Pashtun of the village of Marghan in central Kurram. "Sometimes they speak in Arabic, sometimes in English. Their leaders stay at the houses of influential people in our area. And we can't do anything about it."
Almost always, militants fleeing South Waziristan arrive at night in large groups piled into Toyota Land Cruisers and pickup trucks, villagers say. The newcomers have established hide-outs in the foothills and mountains skirting the villages, and have been seen digging trenches in mountainsides. Without any troops to confront them, they freely roam through villages, demanding money, food and guns.
Both the Orakzai and Kurram districts had large sections controlled by Pakistan Taliban militants before fighters from South Waziristan began appearing. However, the Taliban presence in those districts wasn't considered as large as the militant group's forces in South Waziristan, long considered the hub for terrorism in Pakistan.
(Reporting by Alex Rodriguez)