The US-led military campaign in Afghanistan, launched nearly seven months ago, appears to be shifting southeast of the border into Pakistan. The country's loosely governed tribal territories have long been suspected of being havens for Al Qaeda and Taliban operatives.
In the past few days, US forces in pursuit of Al Qaeda and Taliban elements have been conducting joint operations inside Pakistan alongside Pakistani security forces, witnesses and Afghan military officials say. US special forces clashed on Monday and Tuesday with suspected Al Qaeda militants a mile from the border near the city of Khost, according to US military officials. Up to four Al Qaeda militants were killed, said US commander Maj. Gen. Franklin Hagenbeck, according to a wire report.
And on Friday night, a famous madrassah (religious seminary) in the northern Waziristan city of Miran Shah was raided by US and Pakistani troops, say local observers.
If the US is to meet its objectives in the war "to kill or capture Al Qaeda and Taliban fugitives," in the words of one US military spokesman here hideouts in Pakistan's tribal areas are a natural next target. But the new campaign to hunt down fugitives inside Pakistan and clog crossings on the treacherously porous 1,400-mile border that stretches between the two countries will need the cooperation of many.
In Afghanistan, new flare-ups among rival warlords are making it difficult to find allies. Over the weekend, feuding leaders clashed in the eastern city of Gardez. Up to 28 people were reported killed in fighting that included rocket attacks on the city.
And in Pakistan's tribal areas, predominantly Pashtun places where sympathy for Al Qaeda and the Taliban runs high, local residents see both US and Pakistani government troops as enemy intruders who have put Islam not terrorism under attack.
On Friday, joint teams of 10-15 US combat troops and 200 Pakistani paramilitary troops raided Manba al-Uloom, a famous religious school in Darpa Khail, residents say. The school used to be run by Jalaluddin Haqqani, the commander of the Taliban's armed forces until the regime's removal from power last fall.
"A big crowd of people rushed to the spot, but the local security forces did not allow anybody to go near the troops. When the soldiers came out of their vehicles we saw some foreign soldiers with sophisticated weapons and cameras," says Ghulam Sakhi Dawar, a local villager who was surprised to see American troops in the Pakistani tribal area.
"They opened the main gate and searched the madrassah room by room, but found nothing and left the area late in the evening," he says. He says that the forces made no arrests because the building was empty when they entered.
Haji Salam Wazir, the caretaker of the madrassah and a tribal chief of the Darpa Khail branch of the powerful Waziri tribe, worried about the future of the religious institute. "[The troops] broke all the locks of the doors and even windows and tore some of valued books and documents," he says, standing in front of a big cupboard of books and papers that had been overturned.
"This school was founded and established by Sheikh Haqqani, and he spent millions of rupees to build it. Now the military forces with foreign spies want to destroy it," says Mr. Salam. "We will never allow anybody to destroy our religious institutions."
"I am surprised how the Americans use the Muslims," adds Salam. "Until yesterday, Haqqani was a hero and freedom fighter for the US, and they sent their own military experts to train him. Now he is a terrorist," he says.
Many people at Miran Shah's bazaar said that they had seen red-faced US soldiers presumably more sunburned than tanned in plain clothes buying food and beverages at the city market. Qudrat Ullah, an Afghan refugee who sells beverages in the city, says that "a sophisticated land cruiser stopped near my shop and four American nationals, escorted by 10 Pakistani paramilitary soldiers in a truck, came down and bought some Pepsi cans along with some bottles of mineral water."
Until now, there have been no reports of US forces entering tribal regions of Pakistan lying along the lengthy and mountainous border with Afghanistan, riddled with traditional strongholds for the Taliban and Al Qaeda. The Pakistani Army treads lightly in this region and has been unable to police it in the past.
Afghan military officials say that hundreds of Al Qaeda renegades have taken refuge in tribal areas and are trying to regroup for a guerrilla campaign over the summer.
Amanullah Zadran, the Minister of Frontiers and Tribal Affairs, says that the US should consider installing hundreds or even thousands of small Afghan guardposts along the border, to help prevent illegal crossings in both directions. By paying only $150 or $200 a month per soldier, he claims, the situation on the ground could be changed radically.
"The important thing is to control the border activity and to have checkpoints all along the border," he says. "Ten percent of the cost of one bomb could pay for soldiers to police the border."
Sardar Khan, deputy commander of the 600 Afghan soldiers working with US forces in Khost, says that some senior Al Qaeda leaders have been seen in the border areas in the past two weeks.
"Not only Al Qaeda fighters are hiding in the tribal areas, but some of their leaders are also hiding there," Mr. Khan says. "Our people have seen Osama bin Laden's No. 2, Ayman Al Zawahiri, the Egyptian doctor." This information echoes other reports which remain impossible to confirm that Mr. bin Laden and Mr. Zawahiri are both in Maidan, a remote mountain village in northern Waziristan.