- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 19, 2006

Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf continues walking on eggshells. He has survived eight assassination plots since seizing power in 1999. The nationwide outcry over the U.S. bombing of a small village, which killed at least three al Qaeda operatives, is a timely reminder that more than half the country sympathizes with Osama bin Laden, still the most wanted terrorist leader in the world.

The tribal areas that straddle an unmarked, more than 1,000-mile long frontier of jagged mountains and desert flats are populated by several million people who see bin Laden as a “freedom fighter.” The Northwest Frontier Province (NWFP), one of Pakistan’s four provinces, is actually governed by a pro-Taliban politico-religious alliance known as Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA). One of MMA’s co-chairs is Sami ul-Haq, a long-time personal friend of bin Laden and Mullah Omar, the former Taliban chief who is still in hiding.

Baluchistan, the other province that shares a long common border with Afghanistan, is also governed by a coalition of MMA and other anti-U.S. parties. Military operations to put down Baluchistan’s fourth insurgency since the eve of World War II seldom get reported as the entire province is banned to foreign reporters. Quetta, the provincial capital, is home to many former Taliban officials. The government doesn’t even try to arrest them, but claims it is actively pursuing al Qaeda terrorists. Mr. Musharraf may believe this to be the case but on-the-scene verification by UPI showed a different picture.

In an unauthorized trip to the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) on the Afghan border last September, this reporter, accompanied by a UPI team of Pakistani nationals, heard from villagers that several thousand al Qaeda fighters had been living in their midst since they escaped from the battle of Tora Bora in December 2001. Many had married local girls. Uzbeks, Tajiks, Chechens, Yemenis and other Middle Easterners were mentioned.

These were some of the fighters who took on the Pakistani army as it swept through FATA in 2004, sustaining heavy casualties. The army had been banned from FATA by treaty with tribal leaders ever since independence in 1947. U.S. pressure to seal off the escape routes into Pakistan from Tora Bora forced Mr. Musharraf’s hand. The army captured several dozen al Qaeda fighters on their way out of Afghanistan, but several thousand simply faded into friendly tribal villages and welcoming mosques. The army was not authorized to search the thousands of mudbaked dwellings or places of worship.

These were the villagers who told this reporter’s UPI team four years ago that Osama bin Laden and his party of about 50 escaped through Pakistan’s Tirah valley on Dec. 9, 2001.

Last September, FATA locals also said bin Laden had a mobile dialysis machine that worked with a small generator.

Mr. Musharraf knows the CIA uses Predator pilotless planes, controlled from Washington by satellite, to drop the occasional guided missile on suspected al Qaeda targets on the Pakistani side of the border. Known as the Durand Line, the border legally ceased to exist in 1993. The treaty that established it was signed in 1893 by the king of Afghanistan and a British colonial official for 100 years. But Mr. Musharraf’s wink and nod to the Bush administration for CIA missions is very unpopular among some of his fellow generals and ISI, the Interservices Intelligence agency.

Because he has hung on to the all-powerful Army Chief of Staff position for the last six years, several candidates for the post had to retire before they could be considered, which has not enhanced his popularity among senior officers.

The gigantic Oct. 7 earthquake that killed almost 100,000 and left more than 3 million homeless also dealt Mr. Musharraf’s presidency a major political blow. MMA moved in faster with relief supplies than the slow-moving military machine. The U.S. army, as well as British and German units, with helicopters reassigned from Afghanistan, are still working round-the-clock, high-altitude relief operations.

TV footage still shows men, women and children, barefoot on ice and snow, making their way down to tent cities where they huddle in subfreezing temperatures. Hundreds still die from the cold every day.

The “Death to America” demonstrations from Peshawar to Karachi were also directed against “Busharraf,” as some editorial cartoonists refer to President Musharraf.

Arnaud de Borchgrave is editor at large of The Washington Times and of United Press International.

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