WANA, Pakistan -- The zigzag trip to this garrison town deep in the tribal area of South Waziristan tells a story that's more than a century old: The fierce Mehsud tribe and its allies are a law unto themselves in these rugged mountains, and wise travelers steer clear of their strongholds.
The Mehsud warriors have defied the British Raj, the Pakistani army and lately the Americans and their high-tech Predator drones. Since 2001, they have offered a haven to al-Qaeda and the Taliban and, in the process, made Waziristan one of the most dangerous spots on Earth.
A new battle for control of Waziristan is coming, as the Pakistani military prepares a ground offensive in the Mehsud areas against Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters. The army has code-named the operation "Rahe Nijat," which the commander here translates loosely as "The Way to Get Rid of Them." The assault could start within the next month.
I traveled here from Peshawar in a single-engine Pakistani army Mashaq trainer. The route was not a straight line, which would have taken us over Mehsud territory. That's too risky, even at 8,500 feet. So the young pilot steered a dogleg course during the nearly two-hour flight, making a sharp right over the ancient princely city of Tank.
We could see in the distance the regions where al-Qaeda has taken refuge. It's an almost lunar landscape of dry, trackless peaks with a sparse stubble of trees along the ridges. If you were looking for a place to hide, so rugged and inhospitable that outsiders would tremble at entering, Waziristan would be it. In the days of the Raj, maps of Waziristan were mostly blank; even the intrepid British explorers usually stayed away.
We landed at Wana under a hot sun, in a valley surrounded by sawtooth mountains. To the west, about 20 miles distant, is Afghanistan. A hint of the violent life here is that family compounds are built as little forts, with steep walls and gun turrets at the corners. On Muslim feast days, it's said, the locals have shooting competitions.
The town has two military outposts: a Pakistani army camp and the local headquarters of the Frontier Corps, the tribal force that, in theory, keeps the peace in Waziristan and the six other districts of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, or FATA.
In recent decades, the government's authority here disappeared. The Pakistani army tried unsuccessfully to regain control in 2007 and 2008, and is said to have struck a secret peace deal with Baitullah Mehsud, then the toughest fighter of the clan and the leader of the Pakistani Taliban.
Wana is relatively calm today because it's controlled not by the Mehsuds but by the rival Waziri tribe, which in the past year has made peace with the government. The Pakistani army worked with the Waziri "maliks," as the tribal leaders are known, to rebuild their power. The government's campaign got a boost in August when a U.S. Predator attack killed Baitullah Mehsud.
Maj. Gen. Khalid Rabbani, the army commander here, is waiting for the ground battle to begin. "Enough is enough," he says of the Mehsud chiefs and their allies. He's confident that his troops can clear the area, but he worries whether economic development will come fast enough to hold it.
The army has been squeezing South Waziristan for two months now, blocking all roads into the Mehsud area, and Rabbani says the insurgents are running out of food and fuel. About 80,000 noncombatants have left, leaving an estimated 10,000 to 20,000 hard-core fighters.
The Pakistani strategy for rebuilding control here might be termed "back to the future." Once the Taliban's hold is broken, the army will work with the maliks to restore the old tribal power structure. The maliks will get stipends for their "jirgas," or governing councils, and for a network of sentries, known as "khassadars." The maliks will also revive local militias that can defend against insurgents.
A beefed-up Frontier Corps will give the system some muscle. In Peshawar, I visited the Frontier Corps headquarters, housed in a fortress called the Bala Hissar that dates to the Raj. The tribal recruits still dress in their traditional tunics and baggy pants, but their officers are getting 21st-century counterinsurgency training from about 80 U.S. Special Forces troops at a base nearby.
The burly commander of the Frontier Corps, Maj. Gen. Tariq Khan, sums up his philosophy of tribal politics this way: "If you want to be somebody, you must have a bigger caliber and a bigger wallet." Guns and money are on Pakistan's side in the coming showdown with the Mehsuds and their brutal friends, but this is one tough enemy.