They have been attacked from the air by American drones and on the ground by the Pakistan Army. Hundreds have been killed or injured on the battlefields of Afghanistan — but the foreign fighters, or “global terrorists” of the North West Frontier Province, remain a formidable presence.
First-hand accounts from locals in the lawless areas of Pakistan close to the Afghan border, combined with those of Pakistani officers in the region, suggest that there is no shortage of Islamic foreigners willing to join the fray. Britain claims that these fighters are still the source of 75 per cent of terror plots against it.
Among this disparate group are al-Qaeda’s Arab fighters, with a reputation for being well heeled and well mannered; Uzbeks from the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), regarded as tough, rough and poor; and the Punjabis of Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), viewed by their hosts as arrogant but militarily competent.
One Pakistani brigadier told The Times last week that his men had encountered more than 1,500 Uzbek militants during operations last autumn in South Waziristan. Another brigade commander said that 10 per cent of the 300 militants that his men had recently killed in Waziristan were foreign, including Arabs.
A Pakistani general spoke of a “huge concentration” of militants from Central Asia along the tribal belt. A doctor from Miram Shah, in North Waziristan, where he is the director of a 20-bed private clinic, said: “There’s a lot more [foreign fighters] there now than a year ago. They have moved into Miram Shah since leaving South Waziristan last autumn.
“I’ve treated about 70 wounded foreign fighters and 300 local militants over the past five years,” he continued, adding that numbers peaked a year ago,when he was seeing between two and three a week.
“Some have been wounded by drones in Miram Shah, others by bullets and shrapnel inside Afghanistan.”
The fighters from the IMU and its splinter group, the Islamic Jihad Union (IJU), moved to Pakistan’s tribal belt after being driven out of Afghanistan with the Taleban in 2001. They brought with them thousands of family dependants.
The skill of their nurses has become something of a legend in insurgent lore. More significantly, they are viewed as a growing threat by countries such as Germany, where they have succeeded in penetrating the Turkish expatriate community, as well as recruiting German Muslim converts.
However, the Uzbeks have had a dysfunctional relationship with the local tribes. There have been upsurges of fighting between the two groups three times in the past six years.
Considered poor — one young IJU recruit recently admitted to being paid $20 (Â£13) a month, with a stipend of $7 per child — they are not the tenants of choice. Furthermore, their cultural norms are far removed from those of the Pashtuns. But when it comes to action their tenacity is acknowledged.
“They normally fight to the end, they don’t surrender,” said Major-General Tariq Khan, whose Frontier Corps troops are frequent adversaries of the Uzbeks.
The al-Qaeda Arabs, likened by General Khan to a “pinch of salt in a bag of flour”, are less likely to get involved in frontline action, although they fall prey to drone strikes with the greatest frequency.
The Arabs, regarded by locals as good, quiet tenants, paying up to 20,000 rupees (Â£160) in rent per month, now reportedly move around chaperoned by another key group of international terrorists: the Punjabi Taleban fighters belonging to Kashmiri militant groups such as LeT, Jaish-e-Mohammed and Harakat-ul-Mujahidin.
“The Punjabis are very experienced in IEDs,” a tribal member said. “They and the other Kashmiri groups are like a regular army.
“The Arabs stay with them in the homes we have left behind. They trust them more than the local Taleban.”
However, not everyone is happy with their presence. “It’s because of them that the army has come to our land and destroyed our homes,” one local tribesman said. “Because of them our businesses are wrecked. Because of them we live as internal refugees.
“I’ve met ordinary people who say that they’d even welcome Israel or India if they helped us get rid of these Arabs and their friends.”