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Pakistan works to tame Taliban and nationalist sympathies

From Nic Robertson, CNN Senior International Correspondent
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Pakistan's counterinsurgency strategy
  • Balochistan province is home to nationalist sentiments and Taliban violence
  • The army is recruiting Baloch residents to join its fighting force
  • Improved living conditions are part of the military's plan to win support

Baluchistan, Pakistan (CNN) -- Pakistan is taking a page from America's counterinsurgency playbook in trying to win the hearts and the minds of those who might otherwise join Taliban militants or Balochistan nationalists against its military.

Balochistan province -- Pakistan's largest and one of its most troubled -- is home to a nationalist insurgency and an increasingly violent Taliban presence.

The sight of Baloch troops marching in the Pakistani army might have been unimaginable three years ago, but recruits are now training to fight for the army, not against it. More than 3,500 such troops have been recruited since 2007, commanders say.

"The whole exercise is to integrate the Balochi youth," said Gen. Athar Abbas, a Pakistani army spokesman. "If you encourage people all over the province to join the army and the state system ... that is going to diffuse whatever insurgency is left in these parts."

Part of that encouragement includes education.

At an army engineering school, free courses are given to hundreds of civilian students. The coursework includes time in a computer, filling an education gap the government can't.

"We are established since the inception of Pakistan and we have more expertise and variety here," said Brig. Jamil Sarwar Malik.

The army also has made inroads by opening schools.

When earthquakes hit the province two years ago, the army rushed in to help, but then stayed and boosted their popularity with a rebuilding program in the absence of government reconstruction.

The army said its soldiers gave up a day's pay, more than a million dollars, to build a school. The sum of their efforts have built 25 schools, 12 mosques and four health clinics.

After nearly a quarter century, the army has reopened mines that were closed, while warring tribes fought because the central government was keeping the profits. The alienation led to calls for independence -- the Balochistan nationalist movement.

With the mines open, $75 million dollars worth of coal has been extracted so far, with $16 billion dollars worth still underground.

"It is being spent overwhelmingly -- over 80 to 90 percent -- on the area itself," for residents, for the children and for future generations, said Abbas.

But siding with the military can come at a cost.

Tribal leader Rab Nawaz Zing said he's been attacked 18 times for supporting the army. He blames other tribal chiefs.

"If you want schools, you get shot," he said. "They say we don't need health centers and roads."

While the counterinsurgency is making progress, the military acknowledges that it will take many more years of its best efforts to turn the tide and make the Taliban and nationalist ambitions a thing of the past.