- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 24, 2005

NEAR MIRANSHAH, North Waziristan, Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), Pakistan.

More than a year of intermittent talks with Osama bin Laden’s clandestine network in Pakistan led to a 750-mile journey through territory forbidden to foreigners and two of the country’s four provinces.

The UPI team, in native kameez shalwar dress, included a Pakistani media consultant and personal friend, who asked his name be withheld pending a meeting with bin Laden; a driver; our security chief; and a constantly changing member of the secret network, as we moved from one relay point to the next.

It soon became clear the operatives only knew where to meet us and where to hand us over to the next relay. The ultimate destination was a meeting and an interview with bin Laden. The last two days had been described as a two-day uphill walk.

Our security was in the hands of a former major in a Pakistani commando unit. He had fought with the mujahideen against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. After hearing where the next rendezvous was to take place, he told the driver when and where to stop. Dirt roads and trails off main roads frequently slowed us down to 10 miles per hour.

As we approached the place where we were to leave our Toyota Land Cruiser and begin trekking with backpacks up the foothills of a forbidding mountain range, word reached our escort that nearby militants had just slit the throats of three men accused of spying for America.

The incident occurred about 10 miles from Miramshah, district headquarters for north Waziristan. A note pinned on one of the corpses warned “anyone working as an American spy will meet the same fate.” The dampening effect was immediate, but we reassured ourselves the ex-commando in charge would guarantee the bona fides of the two Americans.

The bad news came when the driver said he could not guarantee he would be waiting in the prearranged shelter when we returned a week to 10 days hence. That would leave us in decidedly unfriendly territory with no means of transport.

Prudence then became the better part of valor. Not only were we to walk at night along a narrow trail between interlocking fields of Pakistani army fire, but we also would have to return the same way only to find ourselves in hostile territory with no transportation.

The Pakistani army recently increased its Afghan border deployment from 70,000 to almost 80,000. We informed our major friend that a calculated risk had suddenly become a foolish one and we would be turning back.

Before entering North Waziristan from the Northwest Frontier Province, we had agreed if stopped, my assigned role, hunkered down at the back of the vehicle, was to be the Pakistani journalist consultant’s deaf-mute uncle. This worked for a half-dozen checkpoints only because a post-monsoon downpour, with much lightning and thunder, left posts unmanned. Soldiers and police huddled under roadside tents and we kept driving.

Incidental intelligence picked up from some of our temporary escorts told us there were 15,000 foreign fighters in north and south Waziristan and that 2,500 Pakistani soldiers had been killed, not the 250 conceded by the army, in a major operation earlier this year. Allowing for hyperbolic math, 1,500 foreigners — Tajiks, Uzbeks, Kazakhs, Chechens and Arabs — is probably closer to the real number. The number of Pakistani soldiers killed and wounded by al Qaeda appears to have been much higher than the official toll.

The foreigners are remnants of the once Afghan-based al Qaeda network that escaped from Operation Enduring Freedom in October 2001 and the battle of Tora Bora in December. They have been living in tribal villages, protected by former members of Pakistan’s Interservices Intelligence (ISI) agency who were once assigned to bin Laden and his Afghan training camps.

Between 1996, when Taliban completed its conquest of Afghanistan, and 2001, when Taliban was routed, several hundred ISI officers served in Afghanistan. They never agreed with President Pervez Musharraf’s post-September 11, 2001, decision to ditch Taliban. Nine top Taliban leaders were trained in a Pakistani madrassa in Khattak, NWFP, under ISI supervision.

Today, Waziristan, north and south, is a wilderness of mirrors where former Pakistani intelligence officers encourage foreign guerrillas back into Afghanistan to join a resurgent Taliban.

Veterans of the anti-U.S. insurgency campaign in Iraq, locals told our escorts, have been training al Qaeda veterans in roadside bomb-making and suicide bomber techniques.

Taliban bases in Waziristan seem to enjoy immunity. And guerrilla warfare in south and east Afghanistan is growing. President Hamid Karzai says, “We have to rethink the war on terrorism.” His followers start rooting for the Iraqi insurgency.

Over the last three years, Mr. Musharraf has stated flatly Osama bin Laden is dead, later that bin Laden is definitely not in Pakistan and more recently that he is hiding in border regions between the two countries and the trail has gone cold.

Chief Army spokesman Gen. Shaukat Sultan admitted, “We are not into a manhunt. … Our sole objective is not the capture of bin Laden. Our objective is to root out terrorism and we have progressed quite a lot.” Pakistani soldiers are foreign occupiers in FATA. By treaty, they have not been allowed to enter tribal areas since creation of Pakistan 58 years ago.

CIA Director Porter Goss recently said he has an excellent idea where bin Laden is hiding. So do many others. The world’s most wanted terrorist has a countrywide network in Pakistan.

It is our judgment at the end of this long trip, ISI knows exactly where he is. Escorts near our final driving destination said bin Laden has a portable dialysis machine and generator and gerrycans of fuel and water.

Musharraf loyalists do not believe in the durability of a close alliance with the U.S. past the capture or killing of bin Laden. Hence, the reluctance to conduct a manhunt in the jagged mountain range that forms the unmarked frontier between Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Mr. Musharraf’s proposal for a barbed-wire fence along an unmarked, 1,200-mile border has little practical value. Six of the world’s highest mountains are in the region. Pashtu tribes that straddle both sides of the border 20 miles deep would tear down such a fence as soon as any part went up. These warrior tribes fought the British in the 1930s under a red flag with “Allahu Akbar” (“God is the greatest”) written on it.

Osama bin Laden sees himself as a world figure, rather a global liberator of the oppressed. ISI may see a vital Pakistani interest in getting the U.S. and NATO out of Afghanistan, and restoring the status quo ante of a Pakistani protectorate. But bin Laden is more interested in a Islamist caliphate whose cornerstones would be a post-Musharraf Pakistan and a post-monarchial Saudi Arabia controlling a third of world’s oil supplies.

Mr. Musharraf’s decision to let his foreign minister meet his Israeli opposite number just before the Pakistani president addressed a major Jewish conference in New York was understandably very controversial for the Muslim world’s only nuclear power. Little understood was Mr. Musharraf’s motivation behind what critics called a “foolhardy gesture.”

His motivation was to deflect a U.S. request to join coalition forces in Iraq with a contingent of Pakistani soldiers. If Mr. Musharraf acquiesced, it would be only to guard Iraqi holy sites.

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

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