As they bake in a sea of plastic tents under the relentless sun, families displaced by the recent army campaign against Taliban forces in the Swat Valley have a single, burning question about the Pakistani government's plans for a far more ambitious military assault against armed extremists in the tribal area of South Waziristan.
"What about us?" demanded Tahir Khan, 35, a farmer who fled Swat with his family one month ago and now lives among 50,000 people in this former Afghan refugee camp in northwest Pakistan. "Our homes are destroyed, our crops are burned, our animals are dead. The Taliban could come back anytime. Why is the army going into Waziristan when they haven't finished the job in Swat?"
Khan's question has a strategic dimension as well as a human one, and it is among many concerns being raised in Pakistan about the government's decision to launch a second major army operation, aimed at flushing thousands of well-armed Islamist insurgents out of the toughest terrain and most rebellious tribal territory in the country.
On Tuesday, in a setback to the army's momentum, a key pro-government commander was fatally shot in his compound. Officials and witnesses said the killer was apparently a loyalist of Baitullah Mehsud, a Taliban leader who is the main target of the government's South Waziristan campaign.
Over the past several months, a solid national consensus has developed for the first time that the Taliban and other violent Islamist groups must be stopped. This has bolstered the army's determination to crush the extremists after several years of failed raids and peace deals, and has done much to redeem the military's prestige after a decade of unpopular rule.
Major psychological shift
In preparing for a full-fledged battle, the military has pounded South Waziristan for days with bombs and heavy artillery and moved in more than 50,000 troops. A sizable number have been shifted from the eastern border with India, signaling a major psychological shift in a military establishment groomed to fight a conventional war with its Hindu-majority neighbor.
"Finally, the mind-set has changed," said Mahmood Shah, a retired security official in northwest Pakistan who often reflects military thinking. "There is a realization that the threat to Pakistan in modern times is not Indian divisions and tanks, it is a teenaged boy wearing a jacket" full of explosives.
But the Waziristan campaign, formally announced by the government last week, has also unleashed a flood of concerns. Military experts worry about the danger of opening too many fronts at once and challenging hostile tribes that historically have been notorious for defeating foreign invaders.
There is also widespread confusion about exactly who the enemy is and what the operation's goals are. Numerous militant groups operate in the mountainous, tribal no-man's-land straddling the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. In the past, Pakistan has tolerated local extremists while blaming those in Afghanistan for its problems, but today there are ever-closer alliances and fuzzier distinctions between them.
'Good' Taliban vs. 'bad'
Among the homegrown militants, it is becoming difficult for Pakistan's security and intelligence services to separate "good" Taliban leaders, whom authorities can presumably control or use against foreign adversaries, from "bad" ones, who have a rogue, anti-state agenda — especially since the two groups often seem to change places because of personal enmity or political convenience.
At the moment, Pakistan's Public Enemy No. 1 is Mehsud, an elusive religious fanatic said to command thousands of fighters and dozens of suicide bombers. He has asserted responsibility for a series of devastating attacks that have shaken the nation in the past year, including the truck bombings of two luxury hotels in the cities of Islamabad and Peshawar.
"He has had a hand in virtually every terrorist attack in Pakistan," the army chief, Gen. Ashfaq Kiyani, said this month. Other officials have variously described Mehsud as a monster, an enemy of the state and — perhaps to capitalize on public antipathies in this impoverished Muslim society — an agent of India and the United States.
As a counterweight, the government reached out this month to several other tribal militant leaders once affiliated with Mehsud. In a high-profile campaign to isolate him, military officials made agreements with two once-hostile fighters, Qari Zainuddin and Haji Turkistan Betani, and began hailing them as patriots.
On Saturday, a spokesman for Zainuddin said in a phone interview that his forces had established control over most of Mehsud's turf. The spokesman also said that Zainuddin, a former Islamist rebel in his late 20s, had broken with Mehsud over his terrorist methods and fully supported the government.
But Tuesday, while Zainuddin was napping after morning prayers in the town of Dera Ismail Khan, a gunman burst in and shot him dead. Pakistani officials said the gunman was probably acting on behalf of Mehsud. Experts said the killing illustrated the unpredictable and risky nature of official efforts to play favorites among tribal groups, which are constantly embroiled in feuds and whose loyalties to the state are fleeting.
Yet another problem is the conflicting priorities of Pakistani and U.S. military planners as they struggle to refine their often uneasy alliance against Islamist radicals. Last week, just as the government was courting yet another militant leader as part of its prewar planning, a U.S. drone rained missiles on his territory, presumably aiming at an al-Qaeda or Taliban target but unintentionally jeopardizing the deal.
Although the U.S. government has strongly endorsed Pakistan's new get-tough policy toward the extremists, American officials are also concerned that the Waziristan campaign could merely drive them into Afghanistan, where tens of thousands of U.S. and NATO forces are waging a grueling and protracted war against Afghan Taliban fighters and other insurgents.
"Pakistan wants to get rid of these militants from our territory now," said Shah, the retired official. "The goal is not to push them into Afghanistan, but we can't be underwriting the security of the U.S. and NATO. They need to fend for themselves."
Despite the now-broad public antipathy toward Islamist extremists and the unprecedented support for army operations against them, the humanitarian toll from the recent Swat campaign — with hundreds of civilians killed and more than 2 million forced to flee their homes — has added a layer of caution to the general enthusiasm for the fight.
In the sweltering government camps and makeshift tent colonies dotting North-West Frontier Province, people cluster around radios, hoping for news that it is safe to go home. The army has proclaimed the Swat campaign a success and begun to escort thousands of people home to the neighboring district of Bunir. But many refugees are still haunted by the specter of fanatical fighters slipping back to harass them again.
"There are still pockets of Taliban everywhere, and they still have sophisticated weapons. A lot of them escaped to the hills or cut off their beards," said Khurshied Ali, 42, who fled from Swat last month with 320 other villagers in a convoy of rented trucks. "They are not defeated yet. Before the army starts a new fight, we need them to finish this one."
Special correspondent Haq Nawaz Khan contributed to this report.