Bin Laden's hideout in wilds of Pakistan
Authorities have pinpointed a 20-square-mile zone, but many obstacles to bringing in Al Qaeda chief remain.
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Pakistan maintains a brigade of soldiers in the Ziar-e-Noor base just outside Wana, and there have been some small operations to root out terror suspects in South Waziristan. But military officials here say their troops are stretched too thin across the extensive Pakistani-Afghan border - too poorly funded and equipped to launch a major operation on their own. In recent weeks, hundreds more soldiers and military hardware have been moved into nearby bases in the tribal belt, though officials here insist it was a routine rotation, and denied local press reports that US troops were slipped in with them.Skip to next paragraph
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One factor for US intelligence is trust in their Pakistani counterparts, Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). US authorities give credit to hard work by the ISI, which has been instrumental in the capture of leading Al Qaeda operatives like Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the alleged mastermind of the 9/11 attacks. But while they praise the overall level of cooperation, they worry that some ISI officials remain loyal to the extremist groups they have supported for decades in the proxy war over Kashmir with arch rival India. "It will be difficult for the ISI to completely dismantle these groups," says Pakistani journalist Rahimullah Yusufzai, "since they may one day be necessary again in Kashmir."
Gaining local intelligence support is a crucial issue for the US, say American officials, since the spy satellites and predator drones scanning the tribal belt have gleaned little useful intelligence in recent months. "We are fighting a high-tech war against a low-tech enemy," says a US official. "We're looking for the funds in Swiss bank accounts when the money is in the coffee can. We're tapping telephones when they are passing notes by donkey."
Pakistani intelligence officials agree that camels and donkeys are often the conduit for illicit messages passed between terror chieftains. Meanwhile, Afghan commanders fighting a resurgent Taliban army north of the border report having pulled letters written by Taliban commanders from bodies of dead enemy soldiers. Many now believe there is an extensive network of handwritten messages extending across southern Afghanistan.
Moving people is similarly low tech. Officials on both sides of the border say an extensive network of local "guides" - Afghans or Pakistanis loyal to Al Qaeda and the Taliban - shuttle top officials through populated areas where they run the highest risk of getting caught. They do the shopping, buy food, pay off local police guards - anything necessary to keep their cargo hidden and off the streets.
Pakistani officials in Waziristan and some US officials discount the notion that bin Laden himself moves very far very often, saying it is more likely the terror boss is confined within a small area.
Despite the obstacles to launching a push for Al Qaeda operatives in Pakistan's tribal belt, many here fear the cost could grow higher if the situation is allowed the fester. Afghan officials have charged that resurgent Taliban are regrouping in Pakistan's border regions and organizing killings inside Afghanistan that threaten to destabilize the government of President Hamid Karzai.
"Why did we start this war at all if we are going to back down now?" asks Ayub Palawan, a garrulous Afghan commander who battles Taliban forces almost weekly from his base in southern Spin Boldak. "Osama looks stronger with every day he eludes the Americans."
• A local reporter traveled to South Waziristan and contributed to this report.