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Pakistani Taliban fighters also are regaining a foothold in the Khyber tribal district. Several Afridi tribesmen from the area told The Times a large number of militants from the TTP and foreign fighters moved into the Tirah valley region and are expanding to other areas.

Tirah is adjacent to Afghanistan’s Tora Bora Mountains, once the redoubt of al Qaeda leaders including Osama bin Laden, who fled from there during bombing in late 2001.

The Khyber tribal district is among the most strategic Pakistan tribal lands and historically is the “doorway to the Indian subcontinent.” The route was used by invaders and traders from the Middle East, Afghanistan and Central Asia over past centuries to enter India.

In the current war, the district remains important for its nearness to Peshawar, the capital of Khyber-Pakhtoonkhwa province. Security of the province is closely linked to the situation in Khyber Agency. About 70 percent of U.S. and NATO military supplies arriving at Pakistani seaports pass through the Khyber tribal district before reaching Afghanistan.

Pakistani Taliban and al Qaeda forces have made disruptions of the supply line a major goal. However, despite destroying more than 500 supply vehicles since 2007 in numerous armed attacks, the Taliban so far has failed to disrupt the supply flow.

“The biggest reason for this has been that Taliban [and] al Qaeda could not get themselves entrenched among the local tribes and brought a large number of fighters there,” said Shakoor Khan, a Peshawar-based expert on security affairs. “However, with more militants coming and holing up in Khyber Agency, there would be a great threat to these supplies.”

In recent months the Taliban also has spread to the largest Pakistani province, the Punjab, where its numbers multiplied many times and terrorist attacks have become more lethal.

The expansion of the Taliban to the Punjab began after the South Waziristan military offensive was launched in October. South Waziristan is a major stronghold of the TTP and its leader, Hakimullah Mehsud.