Booming business: smuggling Al Qaeda to Pakistan

This week, allied forces said the war in Afghanistan is 'all but won' as they focus attention on Pakistan.

Strangers to these arid brown hills would hardly know that they have crossed from Afghanistan into Pakistan.

But the local Afghan smugglers know it, and they make a good living transporting drugs, televisions, and people across a border so thinly guarded that even the main road doesn't have a proper checkpoint – just a man in a clapboard box who waves people through.

Fugitive Al Qaeda and Taliban fighters know it: Pakistan is their new haven. The young smugglers here say their best customers of late are the armed militants whom they can charge 10 times more than refugees or drug runners.

And the US and its allies know it: American, British, Canadian, and other coalition forces in recent weeks have been deploying troops in this part of Afghanistan. "The fight against [Al Qaeda and the Taliban] in Afghanistan is all but won," British commander Roger Lane said Wednesday. British forces combing mountains in eastern Afghanistan since last week have found supplies and munitions, but no fighters.

But if the two Al Qaeda men who wandered up for interviews during this journalist's visit are any indication, Al Qaeda forces aren't far away. They're just over the border in Pakistan, blending into the communities.

The war that began with macro-strikes on the Taliban regime last October is now becoming micro-strikes on cells of Al Qaeda and Taliban fighters who have found refuge in Pakistan's semi-autonomous tribal areas. Instead of air raids, this is evolving into a war of house-raids and covert, ground operations – the kind of close-up, hands-on offensive that some US and Afghan critics say was lacking last December in Tora Bora, possibly paving the way for Osama bin Laden and his closest comrades to escape.

Sealed like a sieve

On the Afghan side of the border, military commanders allied with the US say they know that the mountainous border with Pakistan is as sealed as a sieve.

"On foot, you can cross anywhere along the 2,000-kilometer border," says Kamal Khan Zadran, the military commander of Khost and the head of the 600-man unit trained by the US military to hunt for Al Qaeda and Taliban fugitives. He has deployed about 50 of those troops near this border, but says he doesn't have the resources to deploy men in places where smugglers travel, off the "main road."

It is knowledge of the secret side roads that net smugglers the best pay. Take Kifayet Ullah and Nekamel Khan. who look like a couple of buoyant and boyish college freshman, spend their days ferrying contraband of any kind.

"That's why we're here," chortles Mr. Khan, who sports a floppy hair style the Taliban once condemned as too Western. "That's why we have a small truck," he says, standing in front of their covered olive-drab vehicle that can hold eight or 10 men in back.

"The small ones are for people. and the large ones are for goods. We can charge 500 rupees [$8.33] per person if they have guns, but if they don't have guns, we get 50 rupees a head," Khan says. Here, that's more money than unskilled Afghan workers make in a month.

The smugglers say that since the start of Operation Anaconda in March (when US and its allies battled Al Qaeda forces in the Shah-e Kot Valley) many of the Al Qaeda fighters have shifted quietly into Pakistan's Pashtun tribal areas – where the government of Gen. Pervez Musharraf does not exercise full control.

"Nowadays, we earn a lot of money, especially in the past three months, because we can take three or four groups a day," says Kifayet Ullah, who has the wisps of a first mustache beneath his nose. As the two young partners describe their work, other smugglers gradually appear out of hidden crevices in the hills and also boast about how good business is these days.

"The best money is from the Al Qaeda and Taliban guys, because they pay whatever we say to pay," says Meira Khan.

"If you take this road straight, it's 30 minutes to Miran Shah," a city inside Pakistan where US troops recently raided a madrassah, or religious seminary, believed to be an Al Qaeda hideout. "But if they are illegal people with guns," Nekamal Khan adds, "it takes two hours, because we have to take the long road."

Moreover, they add, the trip is costlier for gunmen who must travel under the cover of darkness, when US, Afghan, and Pakistani soldiers would be less likely to spot them. "We're not interested in taking Al Qaeda and Taliban during the day, so we take them at night," says Kifayat Ullah. "But the returning refugees, we'll take any time of day."

The smugglers claim that the Pakistani authorities are allowing Pashtuns to return to Afghanistan, but not Tajiks and other Dari-speakers – so they demand more money to bring them across.

The work ethic in these hills is pecuniary and value-free. No one here asks what they're carrying, and all say that business has been booming since the Taliban's fall for another reason: the upswing in the drug trade. One smuggler here says he just scored 2,000 rupees ($33) to transport three sacks of something. "Maybe it was drugs," he says, "but they didn't tell me, and they paid me enough."

The smugglers say this is a competitive field, and judging by the would-be ferrymen who materialize over the course of about 10 minutes, there is clearly no shortage of men willing to help.

And few of these men seem worried about being caught. They say they face two foes, starting with the Pakistani border patrols, whose headquarters lurk on a nearby hill not far from Ghulam Khan.

"If they're Pakistani police, we can persuade them to let us go with some money," says Khan. "But if it's Afghan campaign forces, we have to run away because they arrest people they catch."

Who's who?

It's easy to tell who's who, the young men say. All the cars of the Afghan campaign forces bear stickers on the windshield of Badsha Khan, this area's pro-US warlord and the older brother of Kamal Khan Zadran, their commander. "When we see Badsha Khan's cars, we just escape and go the other way," says Khan, the smuggler.

The smugglers have been watching what they assume are US special forces land in helicopters around this area in the past two weeks, raising expectations that perhaps there will be an allied operation against militants here soon. America's Afghan military allies in Khost expect the same.

But so do Al Qaeda gunmen who are hiding out in this area. Among those who arrived out of nowhere to check out the growing gaggle of smugglers talking to this reporter on this hilltop were two Afghans.

They call themselves "independent Al Qaeda," because, they say, they are not working in coordination with the Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda. They say there are a few dozen more in the area who are also "independent." One has trimmed his beard to fit into the local population a bit more easily, while the other has kept the long beard and shoulder-length hair that was popular with the Taliban – believed by some to be the hairstyle worn by the prophet Muhammad.

In a menacing tone, they say that they're "not worried about the [Afghan] campaign forces [allied with the US]. But," says the man with thick locks emerging from a tilted turban, "we are hunting for the Americans."

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