By Myra MacDonald
KHAR, Pakistan, April 20 (Reuters) - I had not expected Pakistan’s tribal areas to be so neat and so prosperous.
These are meant to be the badlands, mythologised as no-go areas by Kiplingesque images of xenophobic Pashtuns, jezail musket in hand, defying British troops from rugged clifftops.
They are the "ungovernable" lands where al Qaeda took sanctuary after the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan; the bastion of Islamist militants said to threaten the entire world.
Yet to fly by helicopter for the first time into Bajaur tribal agency is to challenge the more wildly imagined cliches about this little-visited region on the Pakistan-Afghan border.
Here, in the northernmost part of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), you realise this region is no longer as ferocious as feared and that while militants still call the shots in parts of FATA, Bajaur at least is somewhat pacified.
The Pakistan army knows this and has brought us, a small group of foreign journalists, to Bajaur to try to convince us it has turned a corner in its battle against Islamist militants.
It is a message we are given repeatedly on a whirlwind tour of the country. In Islamabad, the city is relatively relaxed despite the many checkpoints, the jacaranda trees are in bloom and families are back out strolling in the parks.
A minister reminisces about the bars of his student days; an official remembers the more peaceful country that existed before the jihad against the 1979-89 Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.
In Karachi, businessmen party through the power cuts and talk up the stock market; in Lahore, academics speak of the potential cultural revival of a country of 170 million people.
The still-frequent bombings and lingering militant hideouts, including in North Waziristan on the Afghan border, give plenty of grounds for scepticism. But visiting Bajaur is meant to make you believe that something has changed.
FORT UNDER SIEGE
Our helicopter lands in Khar, at a fort which less than two years ago was under siege with rockets raining down every day.
Authorities had ceded control of the surrounding area running up to the Afghan border to militants believed to have once offered sanctuary to al Qaeda leader Ayman al Zawahiri.
It became so bad that, according to one military official, the army feared even the fort would be overrun, the troops inside either massacred or taken prisoner en masse.
Outside the fort, the militants ran their own checkpoints, collected revenue, beheaded prisoners in the bazaar and convinced every family to offer up one male child to the cause.
Even reopening a marble factory required written permission from the militants; another man -- according to the army -- turned himself from labourer to landlord by successfully navigating the paperwork of their newly created bureaucracy.
Now we are able to drive out of the fort towards the border to inspect an abandoned former stronghold of the Taliban.
This is a region which we are told was run according to a 6,000-year-old tribal system -- primitive say some, mature say others -- where each individual was so clear of his or her obligation to society that it worked "perfectly" in its own way.
The fields are either neatly terraced or carefully laid out and the land is well-tended and fertile. If you have travelled in South Asia, it looks remarkably prosperous, either thanks to the old tribal order or money sent in by workers in the Gulf.
The terrain is hilly rather than rugged, although the mountains rise up at the Afghan border in the distance.
The old order broke down with the CIA-backed Pakistan-led jihad against the Soviets which stressed pan-Islamism over tribal loyalty; it nearly collapsed altogether with the flood of fighters fleeing the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001.
The militants became so entrenched that when Pakistani authorities tried to reassert control in 2008 by setting up a checkpoint at the region’s main crossroads, the 150 troops there found themselves surrounded by a thousand fighters.
They began to run out of water and ammunition and each party sent from Khar to rescue them was ambushed. Eventually, after fierce fighting, 140 made it back to Khar. But it was enough to convince the army to launch a full-scale military operation.
In February, the army cleared out the last of the main militant strongholds in Bajaur after months of intense fighting which destroyed villages, left gaping wounds in buildings from rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs), and sent villagers fleeing.
Our small group drives out of the fort of Khar in pick-up trucks, soldiers standing in the back around a rather alarming stack of black-tipped RPGs meant to guarantee our safety.
The roads here are better than in much of South Asia and we drive fast -- presumably to avoid a bullet from a lone gunman or a remotely triggered IED. It is clear that while the strongholds may have been overrun, the area is still not secure.
Yet the atmosphere is less threatening than I had felt for example in Kashmir at the height of the insurgency there.
The crowds of men we come across along the road stare, but without menace. The young girls in white, their heads but not their faces covered, ignore us. Women are nowhere to be seen.
The soldiers who fan out when we reach the abandoned stronghold at Damadola some 20 minutes drive away, where local militant leader Fakir Mohammad once held court, are watchful but not jumpy.
At the very least, the myth of the "ungovernable" tribal areas -- so beloved of Raj-era tales -- has been broken.
The militants were so well entrenched at Damadola that only when the fighting intensified did they put up a sign asking local people to stop bringing their disputes for settlement.
As the army pressed forward, some militants escaped, including the leaders, into Afghanistan, or back into the population. Some were captured, many were killed. The last of them retreated into a warren of caves dug out of the hillside.
You have to stoop low to get through the narrow tunnel at the entrance to the caves, fighting claustrophobia before you can stand up straight again in a dark cavern.
The army says it cleared these caves one by one, throwing in smoke grenades and then opening fire. For some of the local boys, given up by their families to join the militants, this would be the last they saw of their neat and prosperous land. (Editing by Robert Birsel and John Chalmers)