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Last Updated: Monday, 24 April 2006, 23:57 GMT 00:57 UK
The Taleban stronghold of Waziristan

By Aamer Ahmed Khan
BBC News, South Waziristan, Pakistan

The Taleban roam virtually unhindered in most of Waziristan

Waziristan's new landmarks speak eloquently of the intensity of the conflict that still rages between Taleban and al-Qaeda militants and the Pakistani security forces.

Not long ago, visitors from outside the lawless tribal belt along Pakistan's border with Afghanistan were shown a different version of history.

They would see the mountain passes where Waziristan's fiercely independent tribesmen inflicted crushing defeats on the British army.

Or they would be shown the first concrete bunkers built by the British to protect themselves from raids by the locals.

'Most dangerous'

Today, visitors are shown the house where Pakistan's most wanted tribal militant, Abdullah Mehsud, was hiding Chinese hostages when government forces attacked him.

It is possible to be taken to the house where a US military strike killed emerging Taleban leader Nek Mohammed.

Freshly dug graves of tribesmen - some killed in battle with security forces, others by "unknown assailants" - dot the roadside along the only metalled road in South Waziristan.

Fortified building in Waziristan
Waziristan is dotted with fortress-like houses

But even these are perhaps insignificant landmarks for a place that has become known for blunting the self-declared American war on terror.

American officials describe Waziristan as one of the most dangerous places in the world.

"Everyone here calls himself a Pakistani," says BBC Urdu Service reporter Dilawar Khan Wazir.

"And they do actually look at themselves as Pakistanis."

Destabilising

But it is not an identity that is easy to define.

Taleban fighters in the main bazaar of Wana
The bazaar at Wana is crawling with Taleban fighters

"A dozen governments can change in Pakistan and few in Waziristan will even talk about it," says Mr Wazir.

"In comparison, the slightest change in Afghanistan can destabilise the entire tribal belt."

It was perhaps inevitable that the conflict in Afghanistan between the US-backed government of Hamid Karzai and remnants of the ousted Taleban regime would spill across into Waziristan.

Over the last couple of years, this has led to the emergence of local Taleban commanders and brought droves of Arab and Central Asian militants to Pakistani territory.

Ahmed Rashid, author of the authoritative bestseller Taliban, calls Waziristan "Al-Qaeda Central".

Apart from the Pakistan government, few in the area seem inclined to challenge this description - for good reason.

Fortresses

Entering Waziristan feels like travelling back in time.

The sparsely populated and dramatic barren hills show few signs of having encountered modern times.

The fortress-like houses that occasionally dot the landscape add to that image.

These houses have walls that are just under a metre (three feet) thick and just over six metres (20 feet) high.

In most cases, they are built around the entire landholding of the occupant that can be anything between five to 20 acres.

Originally meant to protect locals against invading Afghan tribesmen, many now serve as potential sanctuaries for militants on the run.

The sanctity of these fortress-like homes is considered inviolable in the tribal belt - its invasion a crime deemed worse than murder.

A top military source with knowledge of the tribal areas told me that the government had compelling reasons for halting its military activities in South Waziristan, even if it meant accepting peace on the Taleban's terms.

"We could either carpet-bomb the place, killing every man, woman and child or we could risk hand-to-hand combat outside every house in order to flush out the foreign militants," the source said.

Either option would cause heavy military and civilian losses.

"And every death would have given birth to a new tribal vendetta which would have prolonged the war for ever."

No writ

From inside Waziristan, the argument seems logical enough. And it explains why the government has conceded its writ to the Taleban so completely.

Armed to their teeth, Taleban fighters can be seen patrolling the main roads in small groups.

There is not a government soldier in sight throughout the three-hour journey from Dera Ismail Khan district to Wana.

Pakistani soldiers in Waziristan
The army is mostly confined to barracks

The five check posts up to Wana are manned by Waziristan Scouts, a paramilitary force traditionally employed to keep an eye on the traffic.

The scouts mostly avoid checking vehicles, not wishing to engage armed tribesmen over their often dubious cargo.

Thousands of regular army troops deployed in South Waziristan remain bunkered in a fort that is visible from the main bazaar of Wana, one of the largest in the tribal belt.

The bazaar crawls with Taleban fighters.

Their trademark long hair, beards and perpetually sullen expressions distinguish them from the non-militant tribals.

The Russian assault rifle AK-47, commonly known as Kalashnikov, seems to be a part of the dress.

Some fighters can be seen with hand grenades dangling from their jackets - a typical tribal response to the government's call for a ban on the display of arms across Waziristan.

The scene is such that one has to keep reminding oneself of the fact that this is a time of relative peace for South Waziristan.

Relative, because peace as it is understood in the modern world has perhaps never existed in this lawless part of Asia.


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