PESHAWAR, Pakistan – Maj. Gen. Tariq Khan is planning to stop the Taliban advances.

An intense man with fluent, clipped British-style English, he once was Pakistan’s representative to Central Command headquarters in Tampa, Fla. Now he commands the Frontier Corps (FC), a 60,000-man paramilitary force that has taken the brunt of the fighting against militants in Pakistan’s tribal areas bordering Afghanistan.

As anxiety mounts in Washington over whether Pakistan can push back Taliban gains that have brought them within 60 miles of the capital, Islamabad, Khan insists panic is misplaced.

“I would not measure the seventh-largest army in the world (Pakistan’s) against a bunch of militants,” he insisted, even as he discussed plans to move FC troops into the Taliban’s newest stronghold of Buner.

Yet as Khan talked, the contradictions that make Pakistan’s security situation so precarious were apparent. Khan is a serious man trying to do his best for his country, but his efforts are challenged by political forces beyond his control.

The Frontier Corps is assigned to maintain law and order in the tribal areas and patrol the long border with Afghanistan. Over 30 years, thousands of Islamic militants, including members of al-Qaida, have flowed into these areas. Under such circumstances, the Frontier Corps became almost irrelevant and was starved of equipment funds.

Its role revived, however, in recent years, as the militants began to threaten Pakistan directly. Pakistan’s huge army has proved unwilling or unable to defeat the jihadis. So the Frontier Corps took on a larger role. Unlike the army, whose troops are predominantly from Pakistan’s Punjab heartland, FC recruits are Pathans from the tribal border regions who know the local language and the culture.

Some argue the loyalty of FC troops may be in doubt, since they share the same Pashtun ethnicity as the Taliban. Khan denies any lack of commitment. Indeed, many of his troopers have stayed on despite death threats, and four cantonments are being built to help soldiers and their families who have been threatened where they live.

In eight months on the job, Khan has tried to reorganize the Corps, even as his troops have fought militants in tribal regions such as Bajaur. But he depends for equipment on the army and on U.S. aid. The FC still doesn’t have air capacity to react rapidly across long distances. Such capacity is vital to fight guerrillas in mountainous terrain along the Afghan border.

Equally crucial, the Frontier Corps lacks the political support to hold and rebuild tribal areas where militants have been pushed out. About 100,000 refugees from the fighting in Bajaur have been languishing for months in fetid camps, providing rich pickings for Taliban recruiters.

I visited Kacha Garhi camp on the outskirts of Peshawar, a flat, dusty expanse with endless rows of brown tents housing 16,000 men, women and children. Men and boys crowded around; they spoke of meager rations, lack of water or firewood and overflowing latrines. They fear facing the 120-degree temperatures of summer, especially since women are forbidden by their culture from leaving the tents.

When I spoke of the refugees to Gen. Khan, he responded: “If in the next few months we don’t show them something concrete on the ground as far as development and rehabilitation, then people are also going to hold this against the government.”

He said his team prepared plans for reconstruction but no one had offered the resources.

“We’ve had a lot of promises and poetry but nothing else,” he said.

The refugees emphasized another crucial point that undercuts efforts to fight militancy. Every single one said the government was helping the Taliban. The villagers say the government wants to protect the Taliban so it can have friends in Kabul when the Taliban take over Afghanistan.

This mistrust of government undercuts another key piece of Khan’s strategy. He wants to rebuild the broken tradition of raising local tribal militias, known as levies. Like the tribal militias that finally beat back al-Qaida in Iraq, these levies could play a key role in repulsing the Taliban, with support from the army and Frontier Corps.

“So long as you stand up and show political and military resolve … the people will stand up also,” Khan said.

He’s right. But in many instances when locals did rise up, militants crushed their militias; the army never came. So even though they detest the Taliban, many villagers won’t fight back.

The Frontier Corps should be helped to build capacity to clear out the Taliban. But unless Pakistan’s government and its allies help consolidate those gains, the battle will still be lost.

Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial board member for The Philadelphia Inquirer. Her e-mail address is: [email protected]

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