- The Washington Times - Friday, January 29, 2010

PESHAWAR, Pakistan

They rumble through the narrow snow-clogged mountain passes in black pickup trucks. In the back, eight to 10 men armed with Kalashnikov rifles and rocket-propelled grenades huddle together against the cold.

These Islamic militants are on their way to Afghanistan to kill Americans and their allies. Their launching point: Pakistan’s North Waziristan district - a lawless border area that has become the nerve center of the insurgency in nearby Afghanistan.

North Waziristan is a place where al Qaeda and its Afghan and Pakistani allies can train fighters, store explosives and rest from the strain of war. The United States is pressuring Pakistan to launch military operations in North Waziristan, and CIA-operated unmanned aircraft are unleashing missiles with increasing frequency at suspected militant leaders holed up there.

However, for now, militants from al Qaeda, the Taliban and allied groups operate with impunity in North Waziristan, a bleak, arid Rhode Island-sized region with mountain passes that run like tentacles into provinces of Afghanistan.

“They go back and forth in pickup trucks, and they are all mixed together,” said a senior tribal elder from North Waziristan’s Shawal Valley. “They are Arabs, and Afghans and Uzbeks. It’s a mix.”

He spoke to the Associated Press in Peshawar, about 100 miles northeast of Waziristan, on the condition of anonymity for fear of retribution. The elder’s descriptions were similar to those provided by other Pakistanis who have recently visited North Waziristan, which is off-limits for Western journalists because of safety concerns and Pakistani government regulations.

From Miram Shah, the capital of the region, roads and trails snake across the mountains into Afghanistan. In the winter, rickety old buses and sleek pickup trucks struggle through the narrow passes, sometimes pushed over the most rugged stretches of road by their occupants, most of them wearing only sandals on their feet.

Thick forests stretch the length of the border, providing natural camouflage for insurgents. From caves hewn into the mountain peaks, insurgents can watch American helicopter gunships flying on the Afghan side of the border, often taking aim with their rocket-propelled grenade launchers.

Much of North Waziristan is a wasteland dotted with small clusters of sun-baked mud houses that seem to blend into the dusty brown landscape. Outside the towns, there are few signs of modern life - no power lines or telephone poles. Occasional herds of goats drift past, shepherded by nomadic tribes searching for water.

It was in the town of Mir Ali that al Qaeda regrouped after the U.S. and its allies ousted the Afghan Taliban regime in 2001. And Miram Shah once served as headquarters for one of the deadliest Afghan Taliban groups, led by Jalaluddin Haqqani.

“Read Haqqani as al Qaeda. They are one and the same,” said Mahmud Shah, former security chief for the tribal regions.

In 2006, the Pakistani army signed a peace pact with militants in Miram Shah, which the U.S. said allowed the Taliban and al Qaeda to regroup. Under the agreement, Pakistan promised to keep an estimated 10,000 army men in their barracks, while the militants promised to stop crossing into Afghanistan, expel foreigners and stop fighting Pakistan.

The army kept its side of the agreement. But the militants regrouped and rearmed.

U.S. officials believe Afghanistan cannot be stabilized until Pakistan’s tribal regions - and North Waziristan in particular - have been routed of Taliban and al Qaeda. With nearly 80,000 soldiers deployed on its western border with Afghanistan, Pakistan has launched offensives in several tribal regions, including a recent offensive on Taliban strongholds in South Waziristan.

Yet it is North Waziristan and Haqqani’s Afghan Taliban faction that the U.S. has been pressing Pakistan to target. The U.S. believes North Waziristan is where al Qaeda’s top leadership, possibly including Osama bin Laden himself, have taken refuge. Haqqani’s group plots attacks inside Afghanistan from its North Waziristan base, including the Dec. 30 suicide assault on the CIA base in Khost that killed seven CIA officials.

Pakistan insists its forces are already overstretched, battling its own Taliban and other extremist groups across a territory that extends for several thousand miles. It has refused so far to open another front in North Waziristan.

“We are definitely not considering an operation in North Waziristan,” Pakistan’s army spokesman Gen. Athar Abbas told the AP, only days after Sen. Joe Lieberman said Pakistan may be preparing to move into the area.

With 2,000 Pakistani soldiers already killed fighting insurgents in the border area and with anti-Americanism on the rise, the government has told Washington it will not open a front in North Waziristan against an enemy that isn’t targeting Pakistan - a reference to Haqqani’s group and al Qaeda.

“The army is overstretched and getting into an operational imbalance,” Gen. Abbas said. He said a greater commitment near the country’s western border with Afghanistan would draw down forces available to respond to other threats - including neighboring India, with which Pakistan has fought three wars.

“Pakistan is dealing with it in a logical manner. Pakistan can’t underwrite U.S. security in Afghanistan. It doesn’t have the capacity,” said Mr. Shah, the former security chief in the frontier. “It would take at least 50,000 soldiers for an offensive in North Waziristan. Pakistan has to wait until every other area is secure before it goes into North Waziristan because it will need all its soldiers.”

In the absence of a Pakistani ground offensive in North Waziristan, the United States has stepped up its unmanned drone assaults on the area, say local residents.

Ehsanullah, a tribesman from North Waziristan’s Miram Shah, said in Peshawar that the whine of the unmanned drones can be heard daily. While Pakistan publicly complains about the use of drone-fired missiles, most residents believe the U.S. is operating with tacit approval of the government and military.

“After every attack there is a deep silence and fear is everywhere,” said Ehsanullah, who gave only one name. “We don’t know where it has landed. People from the neighborhood first come out and look around and then we go see who has been killed.”

Gen. Abbas said the drone attacks are making the army’s job more difficult because they are driving local residents to the Taliban.

“If you ask people who they support - the security forces or the Taliban - they will say the Taliban,” Ehsanullah said. “We are angry because the government doesn’t protect us from the drones and they don’t allow us to protect ourselves.”



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