ISLAMABAD — They were never routed, no matter what Pakistan claimed. Instead, the Taliban and al-Qaida fighters have merely relocated. They're still near the Afghan border.
According to residents, militants and reports from Associated Press correspondents who visited recently, these militants, months after Pakistani troops chased them from South Waziristan, have established a new base farther north under the protection of an insurgent leader who has cut past deals with the Pakistani army.
The fighters — including Arabs, Chechens and Uzbeks — roam through markets, frequent restaurants and watch jihadi movies or surf the Web at Internet cafes, their weapons propped up against the table. Pakistani troops wave them through checkpoints even though they're armed with assault rifles and rocket launchers.
These are the new VIPs in Pakistan's most dangerous region, North Waziristan.
The influx of these militants in North Waziristan in recent months adds to pressure on the army to launch an offensive there, and raises questions over its policy of making agreements with Gul Bahadur and other insurgent commanders who threaten U.S. forces in Afghanistan but do not attack targets in Pakistan.
Bahadur agreed not to help his fellow militants during last year's offensive in South Waziristan as part of an understanding reached with the army. In exchange, the army would not attack his territory to the north. Now it appears that this pact has backfired on the army, enabling militants whom Pakistan considers a threat to its security to regroup on Bahadur's lands.
The military says it is not moving into North Waziristan because it does not have enough troops to do so effectively. Critics say the force is holding back because it does not want to sever alliances with militant factions fighting just across the border in Afghanistan, believing they will one day serve Pakistan's interests there.
That makes North Waziristan an enticing destination for extremists, even with U.S. missiles regularly pounding the region.
Newly arrived Pakistani Taliban, Arab and Uzbek militants from South Waziristan are now commonly seen in the north's major towns, Mir Ali and Miran Shah, which are under the control of Bahadur, according to residents there and two AP reporters in the region.