Early this week, it seemed Washington's desire for a Pakistani ground operation in North Waziristan was about to be realized.
Pakistan's Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi said on his return to Islamabad from the United States that 35,000 Pakistani troops stand ready at any time to launch the offensive.
That was just days after U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced alongside Qureshi in Washington a new $2 billion assistance commitment to Pakistan on October 22. She noted that it would "complement the $7.5 billion in civilian projects that has already been approved in the Kerry-Lugar-Berman legislation."
The United States has wanted a ground operation because North Waziristan is the base of the notorious Haqqani network -- which Washington considers the primary Taliban faction orchestrating terror attacks in Afghanistan today.
But if the signals from Washington and Islamabad seemed to suggest that operation might now be imminent, the signals from the conflict area itself were quite different.
Many thousands of Pakistani civilians were displaced during military operations against militants in South Waziristan last year.
Immediately after Qureshi's return, the main military commander for the northwest, Lieutenant General Asif Yasin Malik, said there would only be an offensive in North Waziristan when other tribal areas were "cleared and held."
Malik told Reuters on October 26, "What we have to do is stabilize the whole area" first. "The issue is I need more resources," he added.Familiar Anxiety
The uncertainty leaves the 400,000 people who live in North Waziristan in a familiar state of anxiety.
They have grown used to drone attacks, which have this year reached an unprecedented level as Washington tries to diminish cross-border attacks into Afghanistan by targeting militant bases in Pakistan. The more than 85 attacks this year have reportedly killed more than 600 militants and 10 civilians.
But ordinary people live in far greater dread of the population displacements that come with military sweeps. Past operations in the tribal areas have caused hundreds of thousands of people to flee, and thousands still live in parts of the neighboring province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in tented camps once used by Afghan refugees.
One village leader, who asked not to be named, tells RFE/RL's Radio Mashaal that past operations have created huge disruptions of people's lives without ending militancy.
"The operation they did, they simply say they did it, but it's not like it was finished," the man says. "They start an operation but then they don't know how to finish it. Actually, we need a proper strategist, some war strategist, who can resolve the issues and settle things within a day and night."
The inconclusiveness of past operations in North Waziristan has led to widespread local skepticism about how committed Pakistan really is to dismantling the area's militant networks.
Many local people doubt whether the Pakistani Army is ready to destroy the Haqqani network and others at the risk of disrupting local peace accords that Islamabad considers vital to its own domestic security.Disturbing The Peace
The peace accord is with the Haqqanis' host in North Waziristan, Hafiz Gul Bahadar, who is considered the top commander among the local warlords. He and other militant groups in North Waziristan have offered safe haven to the Haqqanis, who are from Afghanistan, and other Afghan Taliban since U.S. operation Enduring Freedom in December 2001.
Pakistani forces guardi a checkpost on the Afghan border. Some wonder whether Pakistan is serious about stopping attacks over the border.
That operation toppled the Taliban in Afghanistan but inadvertently led to the creation of new mini-Taliban states in parts of Pakistan's remote tribal areas.
With U.S. pressure, the Pakistani Army began military operations in North Waziristan in 2002 but then cut a peace deal in 2006 to end hostilities. Since then, there have been many subsequent agreements and on-and-off fighting, but the keystone of the understandings is promises by the militants to not carry out attacks inside Pakistan proper.
Much less clear is how much the militants agree to cease their activities in Afghanistan, where they regularly target NATO and Afghan troops.
Analyst Rahimullah Yusufzai, the Peshawar-based executive editor of Pakistan's "The News," expects any new Pakistani Army operation in North Waziristan would be small-scale.
"There will not be a big-scale army operation like in Swat and South Waziristan, which we call a steamroller operation, where they engage in full-fledged war and whatever comes in their way is destroyed and then everybody has to flee. That is not going to be the case," Yusufzai says.
"But they will do some surgical strikes on pinpointed targets, only where? Because there are so many groups in that area like Pakistani Taliban, jihadist, Punjabi Taliban, some members of Tehreek-e Taliban from South Waziristan, Afghan Taliban, the Haqqani network, Al-Qaeda, and from Uzbekistan."Terrorist, Or Intelligence Asset?
Some observers believe there are other reasons why the Pakistani Army might be reluctant to launch a major operation in North Waziristan, and those have to do with the Haqqani network itself.
One driver for that speculation is the historic ties between Pakistan's Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and the Haqqani network.
Jalaluddin Haqqani in 2001
The aging leader of the group, Jalaluddin Haqqani, is a former anti-Soviet resistance commander from Afghanistan's Khost Province who set up a rear base in Pakistan's tribal areas in the 1970s. He received funding from the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), the ISI, and Persian Gulf countries during the war with the Soviets but later allied with the Taliban during Afghanistan's post-Soviet civil wars.
Today, Haqqani's powerful militia is commanded operationally by his son, Sirajuddin, and focuses on driving out U.S. and Afghan government forces from the families' ancestral area of Afghanistan.
But if the United States considers the Haqqanis the biggest current threat to security in eastern Afghanistan, Islamabad often appears to regard them as politically important for any final peace deal in Kabul.
The Pakistani government has been widely reported as seeking to include the Haqqani network in any peace talks in Kabul, though Islamabad denies doing so.
The "Los Angeles Times" reported in June that "driving Pakistan's effort is a desire to increase its influence over the government in Kabul and diminish any future role its archrival to the east, India, may have there once the U.S. begins pulling troops out, a withdrawal scheduled to start next summer."Window Closing Fast
Such speculation about whether Islamabad has the will to cripple the Haqqani and other militant networks in the country angers Pakistani officials.
While in Washington earlier this month, Qureshi defended his country's role in the war on terror. "It, unfortunately, seems easy to dismiss Pakistan's contributions and sacrifices," he said. "There are still tongue-in-cheek comments, even in this capital, about Pakistan's heart not really being in this fight. We do not know what greater evidence to offer than the blood of our people."
Qureshi added that nearly 30,000 Pakistani civilians have lost their lives in the war on terrorism, along with nearly 7,000 security officials. Most of those deaths have occurred in the tribal areas during fighting between security forces and various militant groups.
Now, with winter approaching, the window for any extensive operation in the mountainous tribal areas is closing rapidly. Snow begins falling in the mountains in mid-October and makes travel difficult until April.
If there is to be any operation in North Waziristan this year, it will have to begin and end within the next few weeks.