PESHAWAR, Pakistan — They rumble through the narrow snow-clogged mountain passes in black pickup trucks. In the back, eight to 10 men armed with Kalashnikov rifles and rocket-propelled grenades huddle together against the cold.
These Islamic militants are on their way to Afghanistan to kill Americans and their allies. Their launching point: Pakistan's North Waziristan district— a lawless border area that has become the nerve center of the insurgency in nearby Afghanistan.
North Waziristan is a place where al-Qaida and its Afghan and Pakistani allies can train fighters, store explosives and rest from the strain of war. The United States is pressuring Pakistan to launch military operations in North Waziristan, and CIA-operated unmanned aircraft are unleashing missiles with increasing frequency at suspected militant leaders holed up there.
However, for now, militants from al-Qaida, the Taliban and allied groups operate with impunity in North Waziristan, a bleak, arid Rhode Island-sized region with mountain passes that run like tentacles into provinces of Afghanistan.
"They go back and forth in pickup trucks, and they are all mixed together," said a senior tribal elder from North Waziristan's Shawal Valley. "They are Arabs, and Afghans and Uzbeks. It's a mix."
He spoke to the Associated Press in Peshawar, about 100 miles northeast of Waziristan, on condition of anonymity for fear of retribution. The elder's descriptions were similar to those provided by other Pakistanis who have recently visited North Waziristan, which is off-limits for Western journalists because of safety concerns and Pakistani government regulations.
From Miram Shah, the capital of the region, roads and trails snake across the mountains into Afghanistan. In the winter, rickety old buses and sleek pickup trucks struggle through the narrow passes, sometimes pushed over the most rugged stretches of road by their occupants.
In 2006, the Pakistan army signed a peace pact with militants in Miram Shah, which the U.S. said allowed the Taliban and al-Qaida to regroup. Under the agreement, Pakistan promised to keep an estimated 10,000 soldiers in their barracks, while the militants promised to stop crossing into Afghanistan, expel foreigners and stop fighting Pakistan.
The army kept its side of the agreement. But the militants regrouped and rearmed.