Bounty hunting in a land of tribal loyalists

Pakistani tribes reject special forces inquiries, as US finds little help on border.

Inside the crusted brick walls of the military compound responsible for maintaining order in the wild northwest corner of Pakistan, dozens of cheery tribesmen gather in circles, discussing the latest US airstrikes and waiting for government handouts - cash for help in the hunt for Osama bin Laden and his associates.

One group of tribesmen say they are eager to help in the hunt. "With our cooperation, it is impossible for Al Qaeda to hide anywhere," boasts Taoos Khan, a young Pashtun leader and a truck driver.

But how far will he and his fellow tribesmen go to help the US special forces in this crucial mountainous region - where Mr. bin Laden and his associates are believed to be hiding out?

Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf has pledged to assist the US in apprehending Al Qaeda and Taliban members who have escaped to Pakistan. And the military has never displayed a greater presence in its tribal areas, which remain closer in custom and tradition to Afghanistan than to Pakistan.

Several Pakistani tribesmen, interviewed in military compounds and at meeting places across the Northwest Frontier Province, however, draw the line when it comes to permitting US special forces or government personnel into their areas. To them, it's about tribal relations and hospitality. They are, they say, brethren, and loyalty runs deep here.

Take the fact that Hamid Karzai, the leader of Afghanistan's interim government, yesterday provided amnesty to three top Taliban leaders who had turned themselves in. He is backed by the West, but still refused to turn over members of his own Pashtun tribe to the US.

The US did capture some 14 Al Qaeda members near the Afghan city of Khost, which has been heavily bombed in the past few days. It has been reported that it was through this mountainous area that bin Laden and several of his associates escaped into Pakistan.

But going after them in Pakistan's tribal areas may be difficult, to say the least.

Gen. Tommy Franks, the US government's top commander for the war in Afghanistan told The Associated Press this week that, "We could contact them [Pakistani authorities] and say 'all right we are observing people, and we are going to follow them' [into Pakistan.] I think arrangements are in place to be able to do either of those."

But Pakistani officials denied that there had been any such "hot pursuit" agreement with the US military, which would have allowed American forces to chase Al Qaeda or Taliban into Pakistan.

Pakistani analysts say that while a "hot pursuit" agreement with Washington was probably worked out in secret, that, in practice, it would be next to impossible to implement because of strong local resistance in the tribal areas to any US presence.

"We have already made one great concession, says Mr. Khan, the tribal leader, "with the government forcing us to sacrifice our custom of hospitality to guests. The Pakistani military has been allowed to search our homes and in some rare cases take our guests from us. We have already committed one sin in permitting this, but we won't double it by letting the Americans in."

He says that the eight leading tribes in Pakistan's Northwest Frontier Province have all "decided that we will not let the US search our homes. We don't even want them hanging around our airports. It is basically a religious issue. We won't allow the infidels to search any places where we keep our holy Korans."

Down the road at a meeting spot for leaders from the Waziristan agency, the idea of US forces entering Pakistan was even less welcome. The views from the Wazir tribal leaders reflects an independent mindset that analysts say the Pakistani government will be hard-pressed to change anytime soon.

"The only people working with the government to help the Americans are government puppets," says Omar Khan, a burly man sitting on a rope netting inside a wooden bed with a half dozen colleagues. "Locals are still siding with the Taliban. We still love them, and we aren't about to fight our own people with US blood money. Even if you gave me all the money in the US treasury, I'd never help hand Osama and his friends over."

Saif Ullah, a major in the Pakistani intelligence services until 1998 and, more recently, a consultant for NBC News, says there is a deal for "hot pursuit," though he expects the Pakistani government to continue to deny its existence. "On the one hand, I think that the government is in favor of this as a means of strengthening its own control, but in practice I think it would be very, very difficult for the US to move around there," he says.

Mr. Ullah goes on to say that he thinks the "hot pursuit" deal is a part of an overall Pakistani military plan to seize greater control of the country's lawless border areas.

"I've been contacted myself, because the government is now recalling all the old Pashtu speakers in the intelligence services to help out," he says. "Our old policy of sympathizing with the Taliban has changed, but the government still needs us."

The former intelligence officer expects Pakistan to demonstrate its own military intent to root out Al Qaeda cells in exchange for increased US funding for its military endeavors. "You will see beautiful searches carried out and even some resistance will be shown," he says. "Some of the big fish smugglers will be accused and arrested."

A group of US Senators visiting with President Musharraf Tuesday said that they expect him to make a crucial anti-terror speech later this week, which, they believed, would outline the country's new attitude toward hardcore Kashmiri and Afghan militants.

With Washington's assistance in hand, Pakistan can hope to gain a "tighter grip" on the tribal areas, says the former intelligence officer.

"For now, the government has signed an agreement with the tribal elders saying it will not stop their lucrative smuggling business, but that deal will be broken by the government in time. It is the law of the jungle in these tribal areas, and by moving around with the Americans and their money, the Pakistani forces can do what they want."

Not so fast, say Waziristan's tribal leaders. Mohamad Shafiq, whose studious-looking wire-rim glasses hug his long nose is, himself, a would-be trusted confidant of the Pakistani government. He says he is on the government payroll for helping with the crucial hunt for bin Laden and his associates. "No one can check our homes in Waziristan," he chuckles. "The Army only dares deploy at checkpoints. We don't even recognize the Pakistani government, since we are an independent people."

"We'll welcome Osama anytime he drops in," Mr. Shafiq adds. "He is, afterall, our hero. But where is he? I haven't a clue. Do you?"

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