The hunt for Taliban and Al Qaeda leaders has lead to a corner of Pakistan where privacy and seclusion are reflected even in the architecture. Windows open into inner courtyards, and the facades of homes are blank and featureless in Pakistan's tribal region.
On a thronelike armchair in front of his massive house sits Haji Malik Mirza Alam Khan, the chief of the Ahmedzai Wazir tribe. He is trying to pacify his fellow Pashtun tribesmen, who sit cross-legged on the floor in front of him, venting anger at what they see as a violation of their fiercly guarded independence by a series of recent Pakistani military incursions.
"We have to be calm through the most difficult time of our lives," the chief tells his men, each armed with Kalashnikov assault rifles, otherwise known here as "jewelry of men."
"It is a conspiracy against the tribesmen by the US, because it wants to control the tribal areas as it does Afghanistan. We have to be wise in our decisions," he warns.
Thousands of Pakistan's military and paramilitary troops have been deployed in the forbidding mountains and valleys of South Waziristan to round up Al Qaeda and Taliban fighters and to cut off their local support among tribesmen.
Similar ventures in the past have failed. The current operation - the biggest military incursion here in years - is not likely to be any easier, given that these tribesmen share an ideological bond with Al Qaeda and the Taliban and can count on the support of Pakistan's religious parties that rule the neighboring North West Frontier Province.
Observers say that successfully hunting down Al Qaeda and Taliban remnants in the tribal areas depends mainly on the mutual cooperation between the tribesmen and the government, a goal that still remains elusive for Islamabad.
"It is going to be an uphill task for the Musharraf government," says analyst Mohammad Riaz. "The tribesmen are the only ones who know of the presence of strangers in their area. If Pakistan's security forces do not gain confidence of the angry tribesmen, then they will be groping in the dark."
Early this month, hundreds of Pakistani commandos, aided by helicopter gunships, fought a pitched battle with Al Qaeda and Taliban fighters amid the mud-walled homes in Baghar village, a few miles from the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. Eight Al Qaeda men were killed, and 18 captured; among the dead were Chechens and Arabs. Two Pakistani soldiers also died.
Since then, Pakistani troops have been patrolling the region in armored vehicles, and on horseback in South Waziristan, where troops and paramilitaries stand guard in new bunkers.
More than 50 tribesmen have been arrested in recent days, their shops sealed and warnings issued to turn over 13 locals believed to have provided shelter to Al Qaeda and Taliban "terrorists" fighting against the US-led coalition forces.
"We have told the tribal chiefs to immediately hand over the men who harbored Al Qaeda and Taliban terrorists and assisted them in fighting against US forces across the border or be ready for a massive operation," says a senior administrative official, Pir Anwer Ali Shah. "We will not let anybody harbor terrorists in our territory."
Pakistan's tribal belt still follows the format established by colonial officers prior to the end of British rule in 1947. The federal government "administers" the independent tribal belt, but Pakistani laws do not apply to the tribesmen. The administration uses the dated British-era Frontier Crimes Regulations, under which tribal elders have to hand over wanted criminals at the request of the federal government. So far, tribal chiefs have handed over three alleged hosts of Al Qaeda to the authorities.
"It is a political game between the authorities and tribal chiefs," says Waziristan-based writer and sociologist Sailab Meshud. "The authorities are pressuring the tribesmen, and the tribal chiefs are buying time [for] Al Qaeda fighters and their local agents to slip away and prevent clashes between the tribesmen and the Pakistan Army," Mr. Meshud says.
But the tribesmen are enraged, and accuse President Pervez Musharraf of conspiring against the tribesmen at the behest of Washington.
"It is an order of Bush Sahib [President Bush] that doesn't spare tribesmen, and Musharraf is a yes man," says Farid Khan, while cleaning the barrel of his Kalashnikov. "We will defend ourselves," he says.
Thousands of these tribesmen have fought alongside Mujahideen groups in Afghanistan during the past 24 years of turmoil in the war-ravaged country. When US-led forces ousted the Taliban in 2001, hundreds of Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters hid in South Waziristan, drawing on the age-old tradition of support from local tribesmen.
These religious and conservative tribesmen also support Pakistan's religious parties, which banded together for last year's general elections and swept the polls in the Frontier province on an anti-US platform. The alliance, bitterly opposed to Musharraf's government for siding with the US-led war on terror, is now holding protests across the country against the crackdown in the tribal areas, criticizing the US and Islamabad and voicing support for Al Qaeda and Taliban fighters and tribesmen.
"The use of the Pakistani Army against its own people for the protection of American interests in regrettable," says a senior religious leader, Zar Noor Afridi. "The bloodshed of mujahideen should be stopped immediately."