Pakistan army chief General Ashfaq Kayani launched a major road project Thursday that will be a vital trade route between the nation’s lawless tribal region and Afghanistan, the military said.

General Kayani visited the tribal North Waziristan region to inaugurate the 80-kilometre (50-mile) road project, being undertaken by the Pakistan army.

The road from the northwestern Pakistani town of Bannu to Ghulam Khan on the Afghan border will cost four billion rupees ($48 million), the military said in a statement, adding it was aimed at social development of the tribal areas.

The project would be completed in 18 months, linking remote areas of North Waziristan to other parts of the country, it said.

“The road will provide a central trade route between Pakistan and Afghanistan. This will open multiple opportunities for the people of North Waziristan,” it added.

The United States has branded the northwestern tribal area, which lies outside Pakistani government control, a global headquarters of Al-Qaeda and one of the most dangerous places on Earth.

US officials have pressured Pakistan to open a major offensive in North Waziristan, but Pakistani commanders say their troops are already overstretched.

With an estimated 147,000 forces in the northwest — more than the number of US-led foreign troops in Afghanistan — the Pakistani army has also endured heavy losses.

Addressing tribal elders, General Kayani said he appreciated their “support and acknowledged their sacrifices in the war against terrorism.”

He reiterated the army’s resolve to bring peace and stability to the affected areas and to protect the lives and property of the tribals, against all internal as well as external threats.

North Waziristan, considered a notorious Afghan Taliban and Al-Qaeda bastion in Pakistan, has been the target of repeated US drone attacks.

The attacks doubled in the area last year, with more than 100 drone strikes killing over 670 people in 2010 compared with 45 strikes that killed 420 in 2009, according to an AFP tally.