US-Pakistan tighten net on Al Qaeda

Fighting eases as tribal leaders try to negotiate release of hostages. Is Al Qaeda leader injured?

Six days into the largest Pakistani operation against Al Qaeda remnants inside its borders, it is not clear what - or who - has been netted in the unprecedented campaign.

Sunday, Pakistani forces reportedly agreed to a temporary cease-fire, allowing a 22-member tribal council to negotiate a handover of the surrounded fighters.

But Pakistani and US officials have backed off from the claim that Osama bin Laden's No. 2, Ayman al-Zawahiri is the "high-value target" surrounded by the 7,000-strong Pakistani deployment. They say another important jihadist could be holed up in the compound: Qari Tahir Yaldash, a founding member of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) who has allied his organization with Al Qaeda.

Either way, officials and experts say, it is part of the joint US- Pakistani military strategy to remove every potential site Al Qaeda and Taliban remnants use to organize, train, recruit, plan, and control their activities. And if they catch the top leaders in their net, all the better.

"Manhunts are not things that militaries do well," Gen. John Abizaid, US commander over the region, told a Senate committee earlier this month. "What we do well is put pressure on groups and organizations, and we are continuing to put lots of pressure on Al Qaeda and the Taliban in areas along the border that does not allow them to have a sanctuary from which they can plan new attacks against the US."

Pakistan's federally administered tribal areas are a little larger than the state of Texas. The region hosts some of the world's highest mountain ranges, and independent tribal groups who battled against Soviet and US troops in Afghanistan. It's a no man's land. Like Afghanistan in the 1990s, officials say it has become a haven to Al Qaeda and the Taliban.

In fact, the fighting that continued into Sunday is concentrated in about a 30 square mile area near the city of Wana, around the villages of Shin Warsak, Daza Gundai, Kallu Shah, Ghaw Khawa, and Khari Kot.

It is not clear, however, how many Al Qaeda and Taliban militants have congregated in the area. And it's not known how many of them have "melted" into the local population, or indeed originally came from here. Locals say, for example, that some 10,000 tribesmen from Wana alone participated in the decades-long war in Afghanistan.

Pakistani officials say some 400 to 500 Al Qaeda militants are engaged in the fighting. Local tribal sources say the foreign militants also have been recruiting and training some 2,500 tribesmen, which locals call the Men of Al Qaeda.

"They are professional fighters with tremendous patience," says Lt. Gen. Safdar Hussain, who is in charge of the Pakistani military operation.

Fire from the skies

The Pakistani military launched the operation - helicopter gunships striking the fortress-like mud houses from the air, while thousands of ground forces encircled the five villages - in the areas that are ruled by the four most notorious, local tribal leaders known to sympathize with Al Qaeda: Noor-ul Islam, Naik Mohammad, Mohammad Sharif, and Maulvi Abbas.

The four belong to the Yar Gul Khel, a subgroup of the ZaliKhel clan of Ahmed Zai Wazir tribe, which fought against the Soviet forces in Afghanistan in the 1980s, and is believed to be leading the resistance to the Pakistani military onslaught.

"Mujahideen are divided in groups and fighting with guerrilla warfare tactics," says tribesman Mohammad Niaz Khan, who fled from the fighting. "They have automatic weapons, hand grenades, and explosives strapped to their bodies."

Thousands of villagers, like Mr. Khan, are trying to escape - with children, chickens, and goats - in cars, trucks, and donkey carts, as thousands more are trapped in the area. "For us, the sky and earth are both spitting fire," says villager Dilawar Khan, sitting next to his four injured children at a local hospital. "From the sky, helicopters are targeting us, and from the ground mujahideen are firing. We poor tribesmen are sandwiched between Al Qaeda and Pakistani forces."

Moving the militants

That surely is not the intent of the Pakistani mission. But it was initiated to get the militants moving.

Before this operation was launched, US military officials in Afghanistan, as well as Pakistani officials, telegraphed the campaign. That, some experts say, was part of wartime information operations. When the militants fear an attack, it often gets them moving, or perhaps make a call that could be traced. In either case, they could be targeted.

"They were obviously sending a message," says Sam Gardiner, a retired Air Force colonel and a military strategist. "I think they wanted Osama bin Laden to hear the message and move.... The recent announcement that Mr. Zawahiri was encircled could have had a similar objective. It may have had the purpose of just getting him to use a cellphone."

US forces aren't officially operating inside Pakistan, although US government and Pakistani officials say that about two dozen US intelligence and communications experts are aiding them.

But Pakistani officials are playing down the claim Mr. bin Laden's No. 2 may be encircled, although they continue to say the level of resistance offered by militants suggests there could be a "high value target" in the area. "Whenever there is senior militant leader spending a night somewhere, then his armed men guard several houses in the surroundings," says a government official. "On the day that is what happened and they fired on paramilitaries from everywhere. We thought there could be a senior leader hiding there."

Another great escape?

Tribal sources, however, say Zawahiri could have escaped. Last Tuesday, a convoy of two bullet-proof, twin-cabin pick-up trucks broke through a security cordon. These tribal elders say that could have been Zawahiri or the IMU's current leader, Mr. Yaldash.

"He seems to have been injured and appears to be holed up somewhere in that area, but the other two drivers of the vehicles were killed," says a tribal source.

The tribesman says both men are known to visit the area. "Zawahiri was seen in the area in the recent past and visited Waziristan in disguise every four to six weeks," says a tribal elder on the condition of anonymity. Sometimes he would visit on horseback. [And] Tahir Yaldash is very popular among mujahideen for his leadership qualities, fiery speeches."

Yaldash became the head of the IMU after the founder of the movement, Juma Namangani was killed in the US bombing campaign on Afghanistan in November 2001. Yaldash reportedly has since worked with Al Qaeda and the Taliban leadership, carrying out raids on US allied forces in Afghanistan.

Like many of the foreign fighters, Yaldash fought the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s, and stayed in the region. There are reportedly some 200 Uzbek fighters hiding in South Waziristan.

"We have intercepted messages in Arabic, Chechen, and Uzbek languages," says General Hussain. "We have arrested a Chechen and recovered huge arms and ammunition. We believe that some of them were providing training to locals for suicide bombings."

Hussain wouldn't say what has been learned so far from those captured - reportedly about 100. But he says, "We have received valuable information from the arrested militants."

The negotiations to end the fighting and turn over the Al Qaeda fighters is scheduled to begin Monday. Tribal elders are trying to help. "It is up to Zalikhel tribe now to act quickly to save Waziristan turning into Afghanistan and to save the region and tribesmen from destruction," says Azam Khan, a top government official in South Waziristan.

Saliab Meshud, a sociologist and writer in South Waziristan, worries though, that the fighting could spread and that there will be more bloodshed - especially if it moves into the mountains. "It seems Pakistani security forces are committed to eliminate Al Qaeda guerrillas at any cost," he says. "And mujahideen will fight till their last as they will not surrender."

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