- Associated Press - Tuesday, October 26, 2010

PESHAWAR, Pakistan | It’s a land of daunting mountains, crisscrossed with rugged paths. Tucked in the valleys, families live a subsistence existence in mud houses secluded behind 10-foot-high walls, cooking over open fires and sleeping under the sky. Dirt poor, uneducated, their only knowledge of the outside world comes from a crackling radio.

The wilds of North Waziristan, on Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan, have become a crossroads for terrorism. The United States is pushing Pakistan to mount an offensive there before the year is out, but Pakistan is saying it won’t be rushed.

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen has branded North Waziristan the “epicenter of terrorism,” and President Obama has said controlling it is key to winning the Afghan war.

In mosques, mullahs tell worshippers that it is their religious duty to fight the U.S.-led forces just over the mountains in Afghanistan. Villagers open up their homes to would-be fighters and suicide bombers heading across the border to kill coalition troops — or heading the other direction into Pakistan’s heartland to carry out attacks that have shaken the fragile U.S.-allied government in Islamabad.

The threat is also exported far abroad.

A Pakistani army soldier takes position on a hilltop post in Khajore Kut, an area in South Waziristan. A Pakistani offensive appears to have cleared much of the rugged region of militants, though many have simply fled to other parts of the semiautonomous tribal belt. (Associated Press)
A Pakistani army soldier takes position on a hilltop post in Khajore ... more >

Among the thousands of militants holed up in the territory are scores with European or U.S. passports, believed to be planning attacks in Europe and North America. The arrest of a German in Afghanistan this year revealed a plot hatched in North Waziristan to carry out bloody bombings and shootings in Europe. It was also to North Waziristan that U.S. resident Faisal Shahzad traveled to train in arms and bomb making, before attempting to detonate a car bomb in New York City’s tourist-packed Times Square in May.

Any offensive will be a formidable task. Until 2004, the Pakistani army had not entered North Waziristan, part of Pakistan’s highly autonomous tribal border belt. Even now the army, with 140,000 soldiers deployed elsewhere in the tribal region, has little presence in North Waziristan. At their base in the region’s main town, Miran Shah, they rarely patrol.

Some 10,000 foreign militants are in North Waziristan, says Kamran Khan, a parliament member from Miran Shah, a figure that mirrors estimates by U.S. and Pakistani officials.

They are mixed in a cauldron of armed jihadist organizations, including Afghan Taliban, Pakistani Taliban and al Qaeda. One of Afghanistan’s deadliest insurgent groups, the network of Jalaluddin Haqqani, has been headquartered in Miran Shah for three decades. U.S. and Pakistani intelligence believe they sighted al Qaeda’s No. 2, Ayman al-Zawahri, in the territory in 2004 and nearly killed him with a drone strike.

“Everyone is there. There are Arabs, Uzbeks, Tajiks, Indonesians, Bengalis, Punjabis, Afghans, Chechens and the ones they call the white jihadis” — meaning European militants, Mr. Khan said in an interview in Islamabad.

Residents are widely sympathetic with the Taliban and their fight against the Americans in Afghanistan, said Mr. Khan, 28, who says he only travels to Miran Shah with an escort of 30 armed guards because of regular death threats.

“Our area has no development, no education, only madrassas [Islamic religious schools],” said Mr. Khan. “Our people listen five times a day to the maulvis [clerics] and they are always saying this is jihad.”

Because of the dangers, international journalists are restricted by the government from entering the territory. Its tribes have close connections with the key border city of Peshawar, 100 miles to the northeast.

Roughly the size of Connecticut, North Waziristan’s population of 350,000 is mainly Pashtun, the same majority ethnic group in Afghanistan that is the backbone of the Taliban. Mountain paths lead across the unguarded border into the Afghan provinces of Paktia and Paktika, both Taliban strongholds.

In the 1980s, North Waziristan was a vital supply route for U.S.-backed rebels fighting the invading Soviet Union in Afghanistan. Islamic holy warriors from around the globe flocked to the territory.

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