Image: Pakistan army outside of a cave allegedly used by militants in Taliban stronghold
Naveed Sultan  /  AP file
Pakistan army soldiers patrol outside a cave allegedly used by militants in stronghold of Taliban in Kot Kai in Pakistan's tribal area of Waziristan along the Afghanistan border.
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updated 4/21/2010 5:15:02 PM ET 2010-04-21T21:15:02

They were never routed, no matter what Pakistan claimed. Instead, the Taliban and al-Qaida fighters have merely relocated. They're still near the Afghan border.

Months after Pakistani troops chased them from South Waziristan, these militants have established a new base farther north under the protection of an insurgent leader who has cut past deals with the Pakistani army, according to residents, militants and reports from Associated Press correspondents who visited recently.

The fighters — including Arabs, Chechens and Uzbeks — roam through markets, frequent restaurants and watch jihadi movies or surf the Web at Internet cafes, their weapons propped up against the table. Pakistani troops wave them through checkpoints even though they're armed with assault rifles and rocket launchers.

These are the new VIPs in Pakistan's most dangerous region, North Waziristan.

Pressure on the army
The influx of these militants in North Waziristan in recent months adds to pressure on the army to launch an offensive there, and raises questions over its policy of making agreements with Gul Bahadur and other insurgent commanders who threaten U.S. forces in Afghanistan but do not attack targets in Pakistan.

Bahadur agreed not to help his fellow militants during last year's offensive in South Waziristan as part of an understanding reached with the army. In exchange, the army would not attack his territory to the north. Now it appears that this pact has backfired on the army, enabling militants whom Pakistan considers a threat to its security to regroup on Bahadur's lands.

The military says it is not moving into North Waziristan because it does not have enough troops to do so effectively. Critics say the force is holding back because it does not want to sever alliances with militant factions fighting just across the border in Afghanistan, believing they will one day serve Pakistan's interests there.

That makes North Waziristan an enticing destination for extremists, even with U.S. missiles regularly pounding the region. All but two of the 27 missile strikes fired from unmanned drones since January have hit targets in the north, according to a count by the AP.

Newly arrived Pakistani Taliban, Arab and Uzbek militants from South Waziristan are now commonly seen in the north's major towns, Mir Ali and Miran Shah, which are under the control of Bahadur, according to residents there and two AP reporters in the region.

The Pakistani Taliban has set up a command and control center in Mir Ali's bazaar, where it communicates by radio with other groups in the tribal belt, witnesses say.

Fear of retribution
All those interviewed declined to give their names, citing fear of retribution by either the Taliban or Pakistani security forces. The AP reporters also asked to remain anonymous for the same reason.

"Under tribal customs and traditions, we are bound to host brothers from South Waziristan. We are like brothers and we support each other," said a close aide to Bahadur. "We have no concern that our attitude toward the Pakistani Taliban in our area will invite an army offensive. Why should it? Neither we nor the Pakistani Taliban men have caused any problems for the army in North Waziristan."

Before launching the offensive in South Waziristan, the Pakistani army acknowledged striking the deal with Bahadur.

On Wednesday, army spokesman Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas denied the force had any ongoing deal with Bahadur not to attack his territory, saying the local administration may have an arrangement with tribal leaders in the area to ensure peace there.

But security analysts and residents disputed this, saying there was clearly a truce of some sort in the region.

Abbas insisted the army had not ceded the north to militants, saying the army had about 25,000 troops stationed there that carry out small-scale, targeted operations against insurgents. Any such operations are rarely reported.

Relations strained
Despite the remarks by Bahadur's aide, there are signs the new arrivals may be straining relations with their hosts.

The Pakistani Taliban circulated a leaflet two months ago calling on their fighters to avoid any "criminal activity" and interference in the internal affairs of the region.

The army began its operations in South Waziristan in October against the Pakistani Taliban, an umbrella grouping of militants that has claimed responsibility for many of the hundreds of suicide bombs to hit the country over the last two years.

It retook the area in about two months, but most of the insurgents fled rather than fight and none of the top commanders were captured or killed.

In Washington, a senior military official confirmed that fighters scattered from South Waziristan, including some to the north and others into Afghanistan. They included foreign fighters, he said on condition of anonymity because it involves intelligence.

The army has since launched air and ground operations in the Orakzai tribal area, where it says many of those who fled South Waziristan have ended up. But several analysts said they believed North Waziristan was home to most of the insurgents, including their leaders.

"The Taliban are receiving undeclared protection and shelter there in North Waziristan. The issue is now for how long this can be sustained, said Imtiaz Gul, director of the Center for Research and Security Studies in Islamabad. "If you look at the growing convergence between the Pakistan and the U.S. military, it will be difficult for Gul Bahadur to keep these people and not be disturbed."

Bahadur, whose forces do not carry out attacks within Pakistan, is regarded as "good Taliban" by Pakistani security agencies. But he and other allied insurgents leaders in the north, among them Jalaluddin Haqqani, regularly dispatch men to fight U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan.

Uptick in recent bombings
U.S. officials have praised Pakistan's actions against the Taliban in the northwest over the last 18 months, a change from two years ago when their refrain was a near constant "Pakistan must do more." They have also said they understood Pakistan's reasons for not going into North Waziristan immediately.

But an uptick in bombings in recent weeks in Pakistani cities after three month of relative calm will add to calls for action in the north.

"The strikes over the last couple of days mean the Taliban have reorganized," said Mahmood Shah, a former security chief for Pakistan's tribal regions. "I understand the complexities of launching an operation in North Waziristan, but I think it will become a compulsion."

Some residents said they saw signs that a military offensive might come — from soldiers repairing checkpoints on previously abandoned roads, to Pakistani Taliban fighters using the north as a base.

"After the military operation in South Waziristan we have seen Arabs, Uzbeks and Pakistani Taliban in Miran Shah market," said a school teacher in that town about 60 miles (40 kilometers) from the Afghan border. "I am happy with the agreement between Gul Bahadur and Pakistan, but I fear another military operation in our area when I see these people having free movement."

The owner of a pharmacy in the same town had similar fears.

"I am not hopeful about the future of the Gul Bahadur agreement when I see what's happening on the ground," he said.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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