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Among them were Osama bin Laden and his Arab warriors, who before setting across the border stayed in Miran Shah’s gritty hotels, where pieces of dirty foam on the wooden floors serve as beds.

Washington has stepped up drone attacks in the territory. One resident told AP of two cemeteries in North Waziristan with the graves of 300 foreign fighters, most killed by drones.

Pakistani officers say the army will launch an offensive — but the question is when. They say the military won’t be rushed.

“It has to lay the foundations, create the conditions, weaken and divide its enemies” and solidify civilian control elsewhere in the tribal belt so troops there can be deployed in the operation, one officer said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The initial foray could be a limited operation against Mir Ali, a small town east of Miran Shah where U.S. intelligence says al Qaeda has reconstituted, the officer said.

But most likely, any offensive would not go after the Afghan Haqqani network, a key target that Washington wants hit to ease attacks on its troops in Afghanistan. Doing so could spark a backlash from sympathetic Pashtuns in the tribal belt and fuel accusations by right-wing politicians and TV commentators that the Pakistan army is selling out to Americans.

If Pakistani forces go too far, “there will be a contagion of rage across the Pashtun tribes against the Pakistan army, and they will be faced with the choice of being driven from the tribal region [or] having a major wave of attacks in Pakistan cities,” said Michael Scheuer, former CIA point man in the hunt for bin Laden.

Instead, an offensive would likely focus on the Pakistani Taliban, which has declared war on the Islamabad government, and on any non-Afghan militants.

Another challenge is that the Pakistani military is tied down elsewhere.

The army is still trying to stabilize neighboring South Waziristan, where an operation late last year flushed out Taliban fighters but also drove hundreds of thousands of residents from their homes.

And many troops are busy holding down the nearby valley of Swat, where the military put down a Taliban surge in 2008.

“If we leave Swat today, they [the Taliban] will be back tomorrow,” said the security official.

Kathy Gannon is special regional correspondent for Afghanistan and Pakistan.