- OGHAZ PASS, Pakistan
(UPI) - Pakistan's tribal areas are free passage zones for Taliban and
al-Qaeda's foreign legionnaires escaping from Afghanistan, a UPI team has
verified in a weeklong investigation along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.
- The Pakistan army has announced that two brigades, each
made up of three battalions of 850 men each, or a total of 5,100, have
been deployed along a 30-mile stretch of jagged, zigzag mountainous and
totally porous border and have now "sealed the frontier tight."
Helicopter gunships, military authorities have assured the United States,
are surveilling mountain passes against infiltration.
- Presidential spokesman Gen. Rashid Qureshi went so far
as to publicly deny that any al-Qaeda fighter had made it across the border
- Junior officers - all officers and most non-coms speak
English - speculate that such assurances are given to make "the Americans
feel good." Border tribal zone populations have long been pro-Taliban
and pro-al-Qaeda as countless painted slogans and posters of Osama bin
Laden are visible in towns and villages throughout the three key tribal
"agencies" Kurram, Orazkai and Kohat.
- Tribal elders, over post-fast Iftar dinner, told this
reporter, accompanied by a Pakistani friend and a multilingual guide, that
while the army had established interlocking fields of fire at four key
mountain passes, it could not possibly check dozens of other routes invisible
from the air. A Pakistani captain, who asked that his name not be used,
shared the same assessment.
- As the UPI team walked over a three-mile strip of foothills
on the Pakistan side of the Spin Ghar range, one crest over from Tora Bora
mountain, two helicopters flew overhead at about 3,000 feet in poor visibility
and could not have seen anyone on the ground. During the 2 -hour walk,
several dozen tribesmen were seen coming from the direction of Afghanistan.
- Scanning snow-capped Spin Ghar with binoculars revealed
a wide range of ravines, crevasses, valleys and dry river beds, so many
potential exfiltration routes for bin Laden's Arab fighters. Dressed in
khameez shalwar and pie-shaped hats, the UPI party did not attract attention
as it moved in local buses through border towns and villages. Bin Laden's
picture, inscribed "Father of the Revolution," covered half the
rear window of one bus that passed through army and frontier constabulary
checkpoints without so much as an ID check of the passengers.
- 'Taliban Always Welcome'
- Scores of pickup trucks loaded to the gunwales with civilians
similarly drove through unchallenged. Rubber-wheeled donkey carts with
three or four passengers also were part of the traffic pattern. UPI was
stopped once and when the U.S. passport was produced, the civilian security
official made clear Americans were "not welcome." When asked
whether that went for Taliban, too, he answered, "Taliban always welcome."
- From Kohat, army headquarters for some of the tribal
areas, to Parachinar, on the western edge of the frontier under surveillance,
rock formations along the road had been daubed with slogans glorifying
terrorist organizations and vilifying President Pervez Musharraf as an
"American agent." Towns such as Dera Adam Khel, Hangu, Doaba
and Thall, headquarters for one of the army brigades deployed along the
frontier, are identical to towns across the border in Afghanistan.
- The men look the same because they are the same. The
few women spotted - fewer than six in Thall, a town of 250,000 - wore head-to-foot
burkas. The men were doing the shopping for the four-day Eid holiday that
starts Sunday and marks the end of Ramadan.
- 'For Commando Training, Contact Sharish'
- Bin Laden's poster picture was pinned to shutters and
windows. Open-air markets also displayed it on the side of stalls. Sipah-e-Sahaba,
or Army of the Friends of the Prophet, and Shaish-e-Mohammed, are among
the most extreme religious organizations in Pakistan. They are particularly
strong in the tribal belt and in Punjab, the country's largest province.
One rock-face advertisement said, "For Commando Training, Contact
Shaish-e-Mohammed." Another one proclaimed, "Shaish-e-Mohammed
and Al-Qaeda are Bubbling Blood Brothers."
- "Kill America" was painted on the outer wall
of the "Handyside" army fort (named after a prominent colonial
during the British Raj) before the narrow road twists and turns alongside
an ochre-colored, shrub-pocked limestone mountain one side and a 3,000-foot
precipice on the other. Five-ton 10-wheelers manage to squeeze by in both
directions, many adorned with bin Laden's face.
- Shopkeepers and a cot-and-breakfast employee told our
interpreter, an English-speaking native of the North Waziristan Tribal
Agency, that al-Qaeda has "an extensive network in the region."
They did not believe that bin Laden would be turned over if he resurfaced
in Kurram tribal turf.
- Resident "Political Agents," the eyes and ears
of federal authorities, have made monetary deals - U.S. covert funds greased
the relays - with four major tribal chiefs. If bin Laden shows, they agreed
to lure him into a false sense of hospitality and total security. But these
deals, according to local "fundos" (Pakistani jargon for fundamentalist
extremists), did not include them and they proudly say they would give
sanctuary to bin Laden or any of his "freedom fighters." The
pro-Taliban, pro-al-Qaeda feelings of Afridi and Orakzai tribesmen are
openly expressed in random conversations.
- 'They Won,t Serve America's Cause'
- One pharmacist who simply gave his name as Amir explained
that the mullahs and bin Laden had the same agenda. "Even if you pay
them, they won't serve America's cause. At the end of the day, the tribal
chiefs will go with the mullahs."
- The madrassa (religious schools) network, according to
local interlocutors over Iftar dinners with the UPI team, could easily
hide bin Laden and his top lieutenants indefinitely or until they could
organize his clandestine passage by truck to Karachi, 1,000 miles south,
where he could set sail for another part of the world.
- 'There Will Be Many More Bin Ladens'
- This religious network works closely with the Inter-Services
Intelligence agency, an organization long known for its pro-Taliban culture.
Majority opinion among those UPI talked to is that bin Laden would rather
die in the current battle for Tora Bora and Spin Ghar than quietly slip
away to fight another day. "There will be many more bin Ladens,"
said one old man. Others around the table nodded agreement.
- The tribal belt is also Massoud Azher territory, an Indian-born
terrorist who was exiled and remerged in this part of Pakistan where perpetrators
of major crimes in government-run Pakistan find safe haven.
- Fazul Reman, a major religious extremist firebrand, under
house arrest, also enjoys an abundance of laudatory posters. Mullah Rehman
used his mobile phone this week to try to negotiate the return of several
thousand Pakistani "volunteers" who crossed the border in the
closing weeks of the Northern Alliance's campaign against Taliban. Some
500 Pakistani prisoners have been returned. About 8,000 are still missing.
They are a source of embarrassment to Musharraf and his new alliance with
the United States.
- Indian accusations that Kashmiri terrorists were responsible
for this week's attack on the Indian parliament will lend weight to U.S.
pressure to close down Pakistan's fedayeen, or "freedom fighters,"
operations against India in Kashmir. These are would-be suicide bombers
who were trained in bin Laden's training camps in Afghanistan.
- Copyright 2001 United Press International.
- All rights reserved.