Nadir Zeb, the unsmiling commander of Pakistan’s Frontier Corps, insists his men have routed the Taliban from the mountains of Orakzai.

“We have broken their back,” the major-general told reporters flown by the military to Kalaya, the main town in the remote enclave. Officers displayed dozens of captured rifles, hand grenades and a vest for a would-be suicide bomber.

But all is not yet well in Orakzai. Soldiers still deployed an escort of pick-up trucks mounted with machine-guns for a two-minute drive from the airfield to their base. There was no chance to leave the safety of the camp.

A few days later Taliban fighters publicly flogged 65 men in the small area of Orakzai they still dominate. Seven months after 3,500 Pakistani troops poured into the villages and valleys, Mullah Toofan, the head of Orakzai’s Taliban, remains at large.

The army’s tenuous grip reflects trends that have dogged its year-long campaign to regain control of Pakistan’s tribal belt: soldiers struggle to control recaptured territory; civilian authorities remain largely absent; insurgents still inspire dread.

“In many areas the army only controls the roads, but militants roam freely in the countryside,” said Khadim Hussein, of the Aryana Institute for Regional Research and Advocacy, which groups academics from the tribal areas. “People don’t even dare speak the word ‘Taliban’.”

The army’s difficulties are haunting the Obama administration, which sees Pakistan’s battle against militancy as vital to the outcome of its troop surge in Afghanistan. Washington promised Islamabad a further $2bn in military aid in October to try to convince it to widen the campaign into North Waziristan, a haven for the Haqqani network of Afghan warlords and al-Qaeda loyalists.

The Central Intelligence Agency has stepped up drone attacks in the area, but the US military wants Pakistani troops to smash the Haqqani hideouts. Few expect Islamabad to comply soon. The army, which had to divert helicopters and men to cope with the impact of monsoon floods that covered a fifth of the country, says it is too thinly spread.

Its reluctance may also reflect a time-honoured strategy of backing Afghan insurgents to serve its rivalry with India.

“They aren’t going into North Waziristan because they’d be undermining their own geostrategic interests,” said Shaun Gregory, director of the Pakistan security research unit at the UK’s University of Bradford.

Pakistan map

Pakistan’s operations have instead been tailored to meet the challenge militants pose to its fragile but nuclear-armed state. In spring last year Taliban fighters advanced to within 100km of Islamabad, jolting generals who had vacillated between staging halfhearted expeditions against the gunmen or appeasing them with peace deals.

The military pushed into the Swat valley and then conducted operations of varying scale in the tribal areas of South Waziristan, Bajaur, Kurram, Mohmand, Khyber and Orakzai. Pakistan committed some 147,000 troops to the north-western theatre – about the same number Nato has deployed in Afghanistan.

The army has restored a semblance of state authority in areas previously ruled as Taliban fiefdoms, but the kingpins of the insurgency have mostly escaped. “These operations appear to be pushing the militants from one agency to another without eliminating their leadership,” said Samina Ahmed, south Asia project director for International Crisis Group, a think-tank.

People are glad to see the back of Taliban rule, but the offensive has uprooted hundreds of thousands and civilians have often been caught in the crossfire. “Both sides are the same,” said Mehraban, a well-digger in hospital after being wounded by a mine.

As Nato troops have discovered in Afghanistan, force alone will not counter the militant threat.

Asif Ali Zardari, Pakistan’s president, lifted a ban on political parties in the area last year, but people do not yet feel enfranchised. “Governments have never bothered to give due rights to the tribesmen,” said Habib Malik Orakzai, founder of the new United Tribal party. “We’re still living in darkness.”

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