SOUTH WAZIRISTAN, Pakistan (AP) — For 15 hours, we walked with Taliban fighters through territory supposedly controlled by the Pakistani army and frequently pounded by U.S. drone strikes. Avoiding roads and towns, we easily evaded soldiers and were shown recruits drilling with weapons, militant positions and — from a distance — a compound used by foreign fighters.
The rare trip to South Waziristan revealed the resilience of militants in the northwestern tribal areas, some of whom are also battling American soldiers across the frontier in Afghanistan. It also demonstrated that the insurgents, who once ruled much of South Waziristan from permanent bases with many hundreds of fighters, are now largely a guerrilla force there.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Associated Press reporter, photographer and videographer Ishtiaq Mahsud spent six days with fighters from the Pakistani Taliban close to the Afghan border. His account of their travels through South Waziristan offers a look at an area that the Pakistani military claimed had been brought under control after an army offensive two years ago.
The Pakistani Taliban had invited three Pakistani journalists to meet its leader, Hakimullah Mehsud, at a time when splits have appeared in the movement. But Mehsud canceled, with his aides saying he was called into urgent meetings with a delegation of Afghan Taliban elders who had arrived from across the border.
The trip began in the capital of North Waziristan, Miran Shah, where the Pakistan army has yet to launch an offensive despite requests from Washington. Militants, including al-Qaida and Afghan Taliban factions, are in firmer control in this region than in South Waziristan. Extremists from other countries and other areas of Pakistan were visible on the streets of the town.
We then drove to the boundary with the south, and began our journey on foot, accompanied by four fighters.
South Waziristan was once home to about 500,000 people but its towns and villages are now mostly empty. The population was told to flee ahead of a major Pakistani army offensive in 2009. The army has declared victory, but most locals haven't returned. They do not believe official statements that their homeland is safe.
In one abandoned village, three men were living in a single room in a ruined house. They said they couldn't leave because they had no money and two of them were blind from birth. Their sole possessions were a dirty mat and some blackened cooking pots. One, 30-year-old Mafiq, said the Taliban gave them monthly rations and sometimes cooked food.
At night, we slept in empty houses. Once, we feasted on goat with about 40 fighters in a forest encampment.
The Pakistani military remains in South Waziristan in force but its men are often targeted in ambushes.
On the main roads there were army posts, vital for supplying the roughly 30,000 soldiers in the region. But it was easy to travel without being spotted or pursued so long as our group stayed off them.
"The army is confined to the roads," said Shameem Mehsud, the operational commander of the Pakistani Taliban. "All the surrounding areas are in Taliban control."
After 15 hours hiking, our group came to a semi-permanent forward position used to attack troops traveling on a main road below. About 30 fighters were armed with rocket launchers, sniper rifles and artillery. Through binoculars, Mehsud pointed out what appeared to be an anti-aircraft gun on a nearby ridge he said belonged to the Taliban.
As we chatted, the army fired mortars at the position, one round landing about 50 meters (yards) away.
On the return journey to the north, again on foot but using a different route, one of the fighters pointed to a collection of buildings that he said was used by fighters from Turkmenistan. He said fighters from other countries stayed at different places in the region.
The tribal regions, particularly North Waziristan, have become a magnet for Muslims wanting to fight jihad or "holy war." The area is also used by Afghan militants to stage attacks inside their homeland, knowing that U.S. and NATO troops cannot enter Pakistani territory.
The Pakistani army, which has several times flown reporters to South Waziristan and other Afghan border areas to show off its achievements against militants, was not available for comment on what we observed on our trip.
The army offensive in South Waziristan was launched after heavy American pressure, and was followed by operations in six of the seven tribal regions along the border. But as U.S.-led forces have found in Afghanistan, holding exposed and remote territory against insurgents who know the area and can count on local support is fiendishly difficult.
Eager to wipe out a safe haven for al-Qaida and protect American troops in Afghanistan, the United States has supplied Pakistan with money, weapons and expert assistance for its campaign against the militants. That cooperation has faltered badly this year amid a series of crises between the two nations, whose divergent interests in Afghanistan have proven hard to reconcile.
There is no love lost between the Pakistani military and the Pakistani Taliban, which is allied to al-Qaida and has carried out scores of suicide bombings around the country since 2007.
Some insurgent commanders in the northwest have said recently they were in peace negotiations with the Pakistani government. Militant attacks in major cities outside the northwest have been down sharply this year, a drop some have attributed to the success of army operations and the drone strikes.
The commanders in South Waziristan rejected any talk of peace. They said they would negotiate with the government only if Islamic law were implemented throughout the country, the army withdraws from the region and all Taliban prisoners are released.
"Despite all their resources and atomic power, America, NATO and Pakistan cannot defeat the Taliban as our suicide bombers will use their bones as bullets, their flesh as gunpowder and their blood as fuel," Mehsud said. "They have no way to counter to this spirit."
Pakistan's spy agency has been accused of aiding other militants, such as the Haqqanis and other factions in the Afghan Taliban who carry out attacks on U.S. troops across the border.
CIA drones, in turn, have targeted militants with missile strikes in the Pakistani tribal regions.
Although Mehsud said the militants often changed their training grounds because of fear of attack by American drones, he and his fighters didn't appear overly concerned about the missiles. There have been more than 60 such attacks this year, the vast majority in the Waziristans.
At one point on the trip, the militants showed us young recruits — they called them trainee suicide bombers — exercising on a flat piece of land in a deserted village surrounded by mountains. Wearing masks, they staged the mock capture of a man wearing the uniform of a Pakistani soldier.
"We will jump in the fire without any hesitation on the orders of our commander," they shouted in unison at the end.