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.
U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen has branded North Waziristan the "epicenter of terrorism," and President Barack 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.
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 bombmaking, 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.
One of the main militant groups in North Waziristan led by Hafiz Gul Bahadur handed out pamphlets at the bazaar in Miran Shah on Sunday warning the government that any offensive would result in "unending war." A copy of the pamphlet was obtained by The Associated Press and verified by intelligence officials and local residents.
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-Qaida. 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-Qaida'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, Khan said, speaking to The Associated Press in Islamabad.
Residents are widely sympathetic with the Taliban and their fight against the Americans in Afghanistan, said 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 madrasas (Islamic religious schools)," said 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, 170 kilometers (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 1980's, 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.
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, he said, speaking on condition of anonymity to talk frankly of the plans.
The initial foray could be a limited operation against Mir Ali, a small town east of Miran Shah where U.S. intelligence says al-Qaida has reconstituted, the official 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 rightwing 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," Michael Scheuer, former CIA pointman in the hunt for bin Laden, told AP.Comment on this story
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.