SULTANWAS, PAKISTAN — Nearly two months after Taliban militants expanded from their stronghold in the Swat Valley into neighboring Buner district, touching off an army offensive to remove them, there are early signs here that life is slowly returning to normal.
Bazaars have reopened in the two biggest towns, Daggar and Ambela. Power is back up in several larger communities. Men are mixing cement and rebuilding damaged walls. And families are either trickling back or sending older sons ahead to safeguard valuables and harvest overripe crops.
The Pakistani army and paramilitary Frontier Corps sought last week to accelerate the recovery process for the district, just 60 miles from the nation's capital, Islamabad, with a series of food aid campaigns. Their aim is to add to the improved public image they've enjoyed since initiating their offensive against the Taliban in late April. The fighting caused more than 2 million people to flee the region.
The army's recovery effort has helped counter long-standing criticism that campaigns against Islamic militants have been perfunctory at best.
Still, the real test in the fight against extremists will come months from now, analysts said, after the army moves on. If the Taliban comes creeping back, as some locals expect, then little will have been achieved.
In Buner's hardest-hit town, Sultanwas, the Taliban fighters were routed, but evidence of their handiwork remains. A burned-out army tank, its once-green turret now brown and flaking from the heat of the flames, sits immobilized on the main road outside town, the victim of a Taliban-planted improvised bomb.
A few miles north, a sizable hillside neighborhood that had been used by the Taliban as a temporary base has been reduced to rubble, the result of a days-long battle involving artillery and army helicopter gunships. "The Taliban will be back as soon as the army leaves," predicted Mohammed Anwar, a 19-year-old newspaper seller, standing beside a 15-foot-deep crater left by a bomb dropped from an army helicopter. "They headed up into the mountains there, and they'll probably come back."
Shah Anwar, a member of the Frontier Corps' elite special operations group, pointed to a field on the other side of the road where he was deployed during the battle.
"We had to call in the airstrike," he said. "At some point the Taliban just became too strong."
He and paramilitary captain Adil Pervez estimated that 70 militants, many equipped with rockets, missiles and machine guns, were killed in the battle, compared with 10 of their paramilitary colleagues.
Nearby, several residents pawed through shifting mounds of bricks and furniture pieces, trying to salvage lumber. Residents said that once power was fully restored, they would have their families return from displacement camps in Mardan. Up to 60% of Sultanwas' 15,000 residents are still in the camps.
"My house was destroyed by a missile and even the mosque was hit," said Sultan Mehmood, a retired office worker who was wobbling through rubble with a cane. "Because all the wreckage is jumbled together, we don't know who belongs to whom, so there could be big fights ahead. And government aid still hasn't arrived."
But newspaper seller Anwar, whose family of 10 was forced to squeeze into two relatively intact rooms after their house was hit in early May, said he measured conditions by his sales, which were now around 120 a day. That's well short of the 300 he usually sold, he said, but it's much better than the two or three purchased during the conflict.
The government, increasingly aware that military victory is only part of a successful battle against insurgents, has pledged to help rebuild houses damaged by the fighting, although no formal plan has been announced. As part of its hearts-and-minds campaign, it's also ordered paramilitary forces to assist civilian authorities in getting government agencies up and running soon.
The government has also been distributing food, which its recipients welcome, given that a 44-pound bag of flour costs $15 in the Buner markets, more than double the usual price. The food aid "is a blessing," said Toti Gul, 30, a laborer from Daggar, as he headed off with a large bag of flour and 5 gallons of cooking oil from the government.
But some of the food distributed recently in Daggar and Ambela by paramilitary and army forces appeared to flow only when TV cameras were present.
"There are 18 of us in my family, and I'm almost sure there won't be anything more when I reach the front," said Safodar Ali, 20, a student. "And I've already waited five hours in line."
Army and paramilitary officials countered that those displaced were not starving. The communities have a strong tradition of self-sufficiency, the officials added, and the distribution was meant to supplement, not replace, the residents' efforts to get back on their feet.
Paramilitary commanders said they felt relatively confident that the government could keep the Taliban out of Buner even after the army leaves, without the need of additional men or equipment.
Working against the Taliban, they said, was a decision they made almost immediately after the Islamic militants entered Buner and destroyed Sufi shrines. The fundamentalist Taliban frown on Sufis' emphasis on mysticism and decry reverence of the shrines of Sufi saints as a form of idolatry.
This alienated large numbers of residents, said Asad Nawaz, a paramilitary battalion commander in Buner.
"The Taliban are not welcome here," Nawaz said.
More photographs and reports from northwestern Pakistan are available online.