As Pakistan's army plows ahead with its offensive in South Waziristan, its success is at risk because the government has yet to come up with a plan to run and rebuild the lawless territory so that the Taliban and al-Qaida don't re-emerge.
The Pakistani army launched a ground offensive in the Afghan border region in mid-October, pitting some 30,000 troops against up to 8,000 insurgents in an operation praised by U.S officials. In recent days, the soldiers have entered three major Taliban bases in South Waziristan, largely securing one of them, though many militants are believed to have simply fled the fighting.
But the army's battlefield success could be pointless in the long-run, critics say, because lawmakers have yet to present a clear post-conflict plan for the tribal region _ a dithering that could give space for the Taliban and their al-Qaida allies to regroup.
"I think they are running out of time," said Rasul Bakhsh Rais, a Pakistani political expert.
Pakistan's northwest tribal regions lie outside the normal government structure in the rest of the country. Power is vested in tribal elders and appointed "political agents." Residents are subject to colonial-era laws whose features include collective punishment.
Many of the tribal leaders are dead or in hiding, brought down by the Pakistani Taliban in their climb to power in recent years. Much of the economy is based on drugs and weapons smuggling. Islamic conservatism is the norm, and education is so limited that the female literacy rate is just 3 percent.
The army has undertaken four major operations in South Waziristan since 2004, the most recent being the biggest. And the military has pledged this time to avoid the peace deals and stalemates that undermined previous offensives.
But an October report by the Brussels-based International Crisis Group warned that unless Pakistan brought South Waziristan and the rest of the tribal belt into the mainstream political system, extremism would continue to spread, despite the army offensives.
Army and paramilitary forces fought the Taliban in another part of the tribal belt, Bajur, late last year and early this year. The army declared it had vanquished the Taliban there in February. But the governance system has not changed, rebuilding efforts have been patchy _ and insurgents have again stepped up attacks.
Leading newspapers on Friday urged the civilian government to come up with a plan for the impoverished region, where lack of opportunities _ and fear _ have led many in the population of 500,000 to aid or sympathize with the Taliban.
"Unless this happens, the victory being anticipated now could be rendered meaningless, with a new generation of militants rising," wrote The News, an English-language daily.
Lawmakers have made only the vaguest of promises. Last Monday, Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani's office said a provincial government had been asked to devise a strategy to rebuild South Waziristan, but provincial officials did not respond to numerous requests for comment.
Tariq Hayat, an official with the tribal Secretariat, a government body that deals with those areas, said only that local tribal leaders will be brought on board after the offensive ends.
Bringing back the elders is the best way to govern South Waziristan in the short-term, said Mahmood Shah, a former security chief for the tribal areas.
"It's a highly traditional area and attempting to change it through radical reform is never advisable," Shah said.
It could be a while before the elders in hiding are brave enough to go back. Once they do, however, they are less likely than before to take a soft line with Taliban who re-appear in their midst, he predicted.
During a recent trip to South Waziristan, reporters repeatedly quizzed military spokesmen about how long they expected to stay in the region, but were given few specifics. Some said the major fighting could end in two months.
The army commanders said they expected to spend an unspecified amount of time occupying the region, but that it is up to the civilian government to come up with a plan for reconstruction and governance. They also declined to give any specifics about whether tribal police or other security agencies would play a role in bringing some semblance of law and order to the area.
Rais, the political analyst, said federal lawmakers were too distracted by power games in the capital to give a post-conflict South Waziristan the attention it deserves. The ruling party is bickering with its allies over an amnesty bill that would cover the president and other leaders accused of corruption.
Rais said the media, civil society and the army have to push the government to act on a plan for South Waziristan.
"If you don't realize that now is the time to restructure it, then when are you going to do it?" he asked.
Associated Press Writer Riaz Khan contributed to this report from Peshawar.