- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 9, 2002

BADAKHEL, Pakistan The hunt for al Qaeda leaders by U.S. Special Forces secretly deployed in Pakistan's lawless border tracts with Afghanistan is faltering, hit by angry opposition from local tribesmen and the withdrawal last week of key Pakistani military specialists.
In the remote tribal districts of North and South Waziristan, where neither the British in the past nor Pakistani authorities have succeeded in imposing their writ on the heavily armed locals, no significant breakthroughs have been achieved since the search for fugitive al Qaeda and Taliban forces began six weeks ago.
As more than 1,500 delegates gathered in Kabul for the six-day session of the loya jirga, or national assembly, which begins tomorrow and will choose the new Afghan government, the stuttering operation across the border in Pakistan is a reminder of the unfinished business of the war on terror.
Intelligence provided to the United States by paid informers indicates that about 800 mostly Arab al Qaeda fighters are hiding in the tribal areas after fleeing over the mountains from strongholds near Khost where they took refuge after the fall of Kabul and the bombing of Tora Bora.
If Osama bin Laden, al Qaeda's Saudi-born leader, is still alive, U.S. intelligence officials believe he might be in this area, along with Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the suspected mastermind of the September 11 attacks. Mullah Mohammed Omar, the leader of the deposed Taliban regime, is thought to be in Afghanistan's Helmand province, north of Kandahar.
Al Qaeda remnants have gone into hiding in the tribal belt of Pakistan's North West Frontier Province, a wilderness of rugged mountains and parched plains. Scattered in groups of fewer than 20, they buy supplies from sympathetic Wazir tribesmen, who tip them off about U.S. and Pakistani troop movements.
The India-Pakistan showdown over Kashmir has hampered the hunt. Although Islamabad has left in place most of the 8,000 regular troops it recently sent into the semiautonomous tribal areas, it has shifted crucial communications and intelligence specialists to the front line with India.
The operation was already floundering, however, in a region where foreigners especially non-Muslims have never been welcome by the staunchly conservative Islamic tribesmen. Support for fellow ethnic Pashtuns of the ousted Taliban regime has been widespread.
In Miran Shah, an arms bazaar and smugglers' haven near the border, the Pakistan army gingerly made its first appearance in mid-May. A raid by U.S. forces a few days later on a militant madrassa (religious school), in search of al Qaeda fighters and papers, provoked local outrage.
Thousands flocked to protest meetings, where youths announced the formation of vigilante groups to defend the schools. Since then, there have been few raids on suspected al Qaeda hide-outs because Pakistani and U.S. operations have assumed a lower profile to try to reduce tension.
Islamabad's intelligence officials believe that some al Qaeda fighters have slipped away to safe houses in the cities. They fear that the guerrillas are planning further attacks after a recent ambush in Karachi that killed 11 French engineers and a Islamabad church raid that claimed five lives, including that of a U.S. diplomat. Al Qaeda is suspected of involvement in both.
U.S. forces have been further frustrated in North Waziristan by the lack of accurate information from locals. Some insist that there are no Taliban or al Qaeda in their area; others sell bogus details to U.S. agents trying to buy intelligence. The hope is that the lure of a big reward will encourage someone to betray the fugitives.
The U.S. presence here is officially a secret, although not disputed by the Pentagon. About 100 Special Forces are thought to be in the area, including some with experience of the U.S.-backed anti-Soviet mujahideen guerrilla campaign of the 1980s when North Waziristan was a key supply route.

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