Pakistani forces have scored a number of recent successes in ferreting out Al Qaeda operatives from cities and towns across the country.
The latest operation took place over the weekend in the southern town of Nawabshah, where Pakistani forces reportedly killed Amjad Hussain Farooqi, a Pakistani Al Qaeda operative allegedly involved in two assassination attempts against President Pervez Musharraf as well as the murder of reporter Daniel Pearl.
But even as mid-level Al Qaeda operatives are rounded up in civilian homes and apartments, Pakistani forces have been struggling to wipe out a significant contingent of 600 to 700 fighters operating in the rugged tribal region along the border with Afghanistan. Within this phalanx may be the elusive big fish, including Osama bin Laden and his deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri - being protected by mostly Uzbek militants.
Speaking to reporters yesterday, the commander of US forces in Afghanistan reiterated that top Al Qaeda leaders could be in Pakistan.
"We see relatively littlely evidence of senior Al Qaeda personality figures being here [in Afghanistan] because they can feel more protected by their foreign fighters in remote areas inside Pakistan," said Lt. Gen. David Barno.
Hundreds of Uzbek militants now form the bulwark of Al Qaeda's defenses in South Waziristan. The Central Asians are filling the ranks left by Arab fighters who left the region for the Middle East on the orders of Mr. bin Laden months ago, say tribal sources.
"The Arab militants hardly participate in the [South Waziristan] fight as they have handed over control of the battlefield to these Uzbeks. This saves their ranks from losses," says tribesman Mohammad Noor. "They are using the Uzbeks cleverly here. Many locals are now unhappy with the Uzbeks" for drawing attacks from Pakistani forces.
With Al Qaeda's leadership focused on broad planning, command of the day-to-day fighting in the tribal region has been delegated to Qari Tahir Yaldashev. Mr. Yaldashev, who is directly linked to Al Qaeda's leadership, was a founding member of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU). He was the deputy of IMU's founder, Juma Naghanmani, who was killed in Afghanistan by US bombings following Sept. 11, 2001.
After suffering casualties from US forces in the Shah-e Kot mountains of Afghanistan, Yaldashev and some 250 families of Central Asian militants fled to South Waziristan. They joined hordes of Al Qaeda militants of Arab and African origins who escaped the US and its allies at the battle of Tora Bora.
Most of these militants found South Waziristan a haven; local mujahideen and staunch Islamist tribesmen were both ideological counterparts and fellow veterans of the US-sponsored fight against the Soviets in Afghanistan. Thus emerged a new anti-US triangle made up of core Al Qaeda militants, Central Asian fighters from Uzbekistan and Chechnya, and local force of tribesmen.
In the past, "Al Qaeda never let militants from other regions enter the inner circle, which is purely of Arab origin. But Al Qaeda leadership is aware of the qualities of Uzbek militants and their women.... Both are known as staunch jihadis," says Peshawar-based analyst, Mohammad Riaz.
The tribesmen narrate a story of an Uzbek family that stunned even the Arabs. Just after the fall of the Taliban, an Uzbek militant was fighting in Afghanistan and his wife and 8-year-old son were in South Waziristan.
"When the jihadis brought the body of the Uzbek militant named Ali, his wife dressed up in all white, and his son swung a gun in the air saying, 'Ali is not dead, now the real Ali is born,'" recalls tribesman Farid Khan.
Pakistan's field commander in South Waziristan, Maj. Gen. Niaz Khattak, says the fighters appear to be "trained militants." They eat sardines and drink canned juice; do a lot of exercise; and carry military maps, explosives, and Thuraya satellite phones.
Along with the foreign fighters, Yaldashev has at his disposal fresh local recruits from among the Mehsud tribe.
In a bid to win over tribesmen, Pakistan lifted its embargo this weekend against South Waziristan. It was put in place after tribal leaders refused to help officials track foreign militants.
When bin Laden issued his redeployment orders, most Arab militants left the area for the Middle East. But an estimated 25 to 50 Arab militants are still believed to be in hiding in the mountains of South Waziristan. Possible hideouts include the highest peak, Shawwal, as well as the Khamrang and Bush Sar ranges, which are covered with thick forests and have natural caves. Local tribesmen say the Arab militants are guarded by dozens of armed masked men in these inaccessible locales.
Earlier this month, Pakistan destroyed an alleged terrorist training camp in South Waziristan. Sources say the training center was run by Yaldeshev, who, along with 150 to 200 mostly Uzbek and local militants, recently shifted to the hilly areas surrounded by the Karvan Manza and Kunnigram mountains after escaping earlier military operations.
The race is on as Pakistani forces pursue the foreign fighters before the mountains fill with snow in November.
For many of the Uzbeks, there is no choice but to fight. Their homeland is a tightly controlled police state, and the only path of return would risk an engagement with US forces in Afghanistan. Nor can they hope to blend in among a friendly population - their round faces, thin beards, and pierced noses set them apart from both local tribesmen and Arabs in the Middle East.
"With the persistent pressure of Pakistani security forces and having no point of return, Uzbeks will prefer to explode themselves rather than accept the defeat," says Sailab Mehsud, a regional expert.