As nearly 1 million civilians prepare to return to their shattered homeland in a northwestern Pakistani region, thousands of Afghan fighters are also expected to return with them.
Tens of thousands of families from the North Waziristan tribal region began returning to their villages on March 31 after being forced out of their homes for nine months following a Pakistani military offensive.
Sources say the returning civilians are expected to be accompanied by thousands of fighters from the Afghan Taliban's powerful military wing, the Haqqani network, which also fled the region after the Pakistani military launched airstrikes and ground operations in North Waziristan last year.
The network is named after Jalaluddin Haqqani, a hardline cleric from southeastern Afghanistan and a key militant ally of Pakistan's powerful security establishment for four decades. He was among the leading Afghan guerilla commanders fighting the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s.
Haqqani joined the Taliban in the 1990s and led a militant wing of the hardline movement after the Taliban were toppled by a U.S.-led offensive in late 2001.
The network is now run by Haqqani's son Sirajuddin, who is known as "Khalifa" in North Waziristan, and once claimed to command 15,000 fighters.
The network's close relations with Islamabad led the former U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Michael Mullen to declare it as "a veritable arm" of the Inter-Services Intelligence, Pakistan's premier spy agency.
Afghan sources including officials, insurgents, and journalists, who all requested anonymity for their safety or sensitivity of their work, said some Haqqani network commanders say they have even been told by Pakistani intelligence handlers that they would be free to move across the FATA (Federally Administered Tribal Areas).
FATA forms a 600-kilometer arc along Pakistan’s northwestern border with Afghanistan. North Waziristan is one of the seven FATA districts, all of which have experienced the Pakistani Taliban’s insurgency and been key hideouts for Al-Qaeda, the Afghan Taliban, and affiliated Central Asian and Chinese Islamist militant networks.
An Afghan source with contacts in the Haqqani network says the group’s Pakistani handlers have placed some caveats on their return to North Waziristan.
"They are being told they must not maintain any contacts with Al-Qaeda and the Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP)," he said, citing a recent conversation with Haqqani fighters.
Sources in Peshawar, the capital of northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, say most Haqqani fighters were temporarily relocated to Thall, a remote city in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa separated from North Waziristan by a river.
Sami Yousafzai, an Afghan journalist who frequently reports on the Taliban for international media, says that if the Haqqani network rebuilds its North Waziristan sanctuary, it will severely undermine the recent improvement in bilateral relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan.
"Afghan and Western intelligence sources are now weighing the possibility of the Haqqani network being allowed to reclaim its former headquarters in Miran Shah, the administrative center of North Waziristan," he said. "This will severely undermine President Ashraf Ghani's hopes for enlisting Pakistan's help in negotiating peace with the Afghan Taliban. Instead, this move will reinvigorate them."
The possible return of the network to North Waziristan is another sign that Islamist extremists will continue to be a powerful presence in the region, which was a haven for militant groups like Al-Qaeda, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, and the East Turkistan Islamic Movement.
Since 2002, major terrorist attacks and plots across the world from China to Europe and North America have been traced back to these groups.
Earlier in March, a senior Taliban commander in North Waziristan claimed to have had successful peace negotiations with Islamabad.
Maulvi Aleem Khan recently claimed that after successful talks with the government, he has decided to "work for peace in the region,” and vowed to resist anyone who would attempt to create insecurity in Datta Khel, a mountainous region west of Miran Shah.
Khan is seen as a powerful figure in Datta Khel, and previously served as the deputy of Hafiz Gul Bahadur, the most influential Taliban commander in North Waziristan. Bahadur was once a close ally of the Haqqanis but has developed differences with them over the past two years.
In a related development, Islamabad has asked North Waziristan's residents to sign a "Social Agreement." The eight-page document requires civilians to "prevent local and foreign terrorists from using your soil against the country."
Abubakar Siddique wrote this story based on reporting by Ahmad Takal.