ISLAMABAD, Pakistan – Pakistani troops are engaged in a fierce battle deep in a rugged frontier region where conservative tribal culture holds sway and the people have long resisted outside interference.
The North West Frontier Province (search) — and particularly the tribal regions of South and North Waziristan (search) — is also an area with strong sympathies for the strict Islamists of the Taliban regime driven from power in neighboring Afghanistan after the Sept. 11 attacks.
Its tribes have been accused of harboring Taliban militiamen as well as Usama bin Laden and Al Qaeda fighters.
Until pressured by Washington to move into the tribal areas, Pakistan's army had never patrolled that portion of the Afghan border, which runs 2,050 miles through forbidding territory stretching from the Himalayas in the north to the desert of Baluchistan (search) in the south.
The frontier is largely undeveloped, with poverty and illiteracy the norm. Waziristan residents follow tribal law enforced by elders. Its people have not conceded control to outside military forces in hundreds of years — not by the former British rulers and not by the Pakistani government.
It is never a welcoming place for outsiders.
Nearly all men carry AK-47 assault rifles or other weapons, and most women are dressed in body-shrouding burkas. Turreted mud fortresses owned by tribal elders and smugglers rise out of the hills. Feuds are common between families and clans, and often turn deadly.
The government of Pakistan's president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, may have stopped supporting the Taliban and joined the U.S. war on terrorist groups, but many in the tribal areas still back the Islamic militants. Some fought alongside the Taliban during the U.S.-backed war that drove them from power.
During a rare visit to the region by Associated Press journalists last fall, tribesmen voiced strong mistrust of Musharraf's government. They also said it would be unconscionable to turn over men like bin Laden, whom they view as Muslim holy warriors, to infidel Americans.
"I would sacrifice my own life, but I would never turn bin Laden over," Anargul Khan, 20, said in Miran Shah, the capital of North Waziristan that is just a few dusty miles from the Afghan border.
North Waziristan's Islamabad-appointed chief political officer, Sher Zada, called the region a tough place for government forces to operate.
"There are some very, very, very difficult areas in North and South Waziristan. Some areas are totally inaccessible," Zada said.