Hundreds of colorful turbans dot the vista as tribesmen dance to the beat of drums, heralding an agreement to form a 600-strong tribal force to hunt "foreign terrorists" in this remote corner of Pakistan.
The semiautonomous region of Waziristan is the focus of a push by Pakistani forces, in coordination with US troops across the border in Afghanistan, to round up or kill suspected Al Qaeda and Taliban guerrillas, including Osama bin Laden, who is believed to be in the area.
The new tribal posse represents a last ditch effort by local chiefs to save face and preserve their long-held autonomy by preempting further Pakistani military and paramilitary operations in the region. If successful, the strategy could diffuse the potentially explosive resentment among tribesmen unused to the government's deployments. But giving the lead to a tribal force may subject the increasingly urgent US and Pakistani dragnet to new delays.
"This is the last chance for the tribesmen," says Rehmatullah Wazir, a senior government official in South Waziristan. "The tribal elders pleaded with us to give them an opportunity. And we have told them to produce results within the next few days, otherwise be ready to face consequences."
In exchange, the tribesmen are demanding that the government release arrested elders unconditionally, as well as expel thousands of Afghan refugee families. Chiefs say the refugees are a root cause of the problem as "foreign terrorists take refuge with them."
The jirga, or tribal gathering, will continue in the coming days after elders said they needed more time for further consultations with tribesmen living along the border with Afghanistan before the final formation of the lashkar, or armed force of tribal volunteers.
"We want to act within days, but the process takes time because according to tribal traditions we need to consult everybody, and that is a big challenge," says tribal elder Malik Khadeen.
The proposed force - yet to be finalized - is expected to be comprised of different clans from the Zali Khel tribe and would focus on hunting down Al Qaeda guerrillas and those harboring them. Tribesmen have traditionally formed lashkars in times of trouble, and they enjoy a level of legitimacy that the Pakistani military has never had among residents here.
In keeping with tradition regarding treatment of criminals, the force would ostracize and destroy the homes of clan families who provide shelter and food to Al Qaeda. Pakistani officials have issued warnings to the tribesmen that those found guilty of hosting militants would face a 1.5 million rupee ($26,215) fine, seven years in prison, and house demolitions.
"Let's ready ourselves for the battle against those who have brought difficult times on us," a tribal chief shouted in pashto, announcing the decision of the jirga, which is being attended by more than a thousand tribesmen.
"We will form the force and end doubts of the government that Al Qaeda are hiding here. Once we act, there will be no need of any other force for operation," says Mr. Khadeen.
Pakistani officials say they will be monitoring the tribal force for fast results, though the military will not accompany the tribal forces.
Many analysts believe the new tactic in the Al Qaeda hunt may not prove effective as it must pass numerous hurdles in the archaic tribal system.
"If the tribesmen form the force in a true spirit, then it could prove more powerful than the Pakistan military or paramilitary forces. But if it is just a time-buying tactic to release pressure, then there is a big question mark," says Sailab Mehsud, a writer and sociologist based in South Waziristan. "The tribal elders fear a backlash from Al Qaeda guerrillas and their powerful and ruthless local supporters. They are afraid of developing intra-tribal enmity if they act against any local tribesman."
Tension is running high in and around Wana, the capital of South Waziristan, as paramilitary troops armed with rocket launchers and machine guns stand alert in checkpoints and newly built bunkers. The forces are searching tribesmen and their vehicles at major entry and exit points in this volatile tribal area. And the display of weapons - considered men's jewelry here - is banned for the first time since the independence of Pakistan in 1947.
Pakistan has moved some 70,000 troops to the tribal regions; around 12,000 military and paramilitary forces have been deployed in South Waziristan alone. Meanwhile, the US has been shifting more of its 13,000 troops in Afghanistan to the Pakistani border. The US describes the coordinated deployments as a "hammer and anvil" strategy: As Pakistan drives militants from their mountain hideouts, US forces will be waiting to nab them on the other side of the border.
Pakistani forces have already carried out a handful of operations in South Waziristan, and a large-scale "spring offensive" is rumored to be in the offing.
Military authorities have tried to win the confidence of tribal elders by involving them in recent operations. Officials handed them a list of more than 100 wanted tribesmen suspected of providing shelter and assistance to Al Qaeda operatives. The chiefs surrendered around 60 tribesmen, but have failed to hand over the four most wanted, known as "Men of Al Qaeda."
On February 24, hundreds of military and paramilitary forces conducted an operation and arrested at least 20 people, including some women foreigners, and recovered passports, arms, and ammunition of suspected Al Qaeda fighters.
In late February, 12 civilians were killed when the Pakistan Army opened fire on them, following a series of rocket attacks on military bases. Officials say that those killed died in crossfire, while enraged tribesmen maintain the troops killed "unarmed innocent people." The inquiry commission is to announce its findings soon, but the incident has created a hostile environment for security forces.
"Such incidents are distancing the Pakistan Army further from tribesmen. The military is still alien for the independent tribesmen, and any operation will create misunderstanding among tribesmen. There is always fear of a backlash," says tribal elder Malik Behram Khan.
"The security forces are now trying to avoid any direct clash with the tribesmen by involving tribal elders to neutralize the perception ... that the operations are conducted at the behest of the US," says Dr. Ahmed Noor, a local social worker. "So now if the tribal elders fail to act then the responsibility will lie with the tribes themselves, and the government will be seen as justified [carrying out] future operations."