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Holes found in Pakistan's 'sealed' border

Holes found in Pakistan's 'sealed' border

Author: Arnaud de Borchgrave
Publication: The Washington Times
Date: December 18, 2001

Oghaz Pass On The Pakistani-Afghan Border - Pakistan's tribal areas are free-passage zones for Taliban and al Qaeda's foreign legionnaires escaping from Afghanistan, a weeklong visit showed.

The Pakistani army has announced that two brigades, each made up of three battalions of 850 men, or a total of 5,100, have been deployed along a 30-mile stretch of porous border in jagged mountains and have "sealed the frontier tight."

Helicopter gunships, military authorities have assured the United States, are monitoring mountain passes against infiltration. Presidential spokesman Gen. Rashid Qureshi went so far as to publicly deny that any al Qaeda fighter had made it across the border into Pakistan.

However, junior officers - all officers, and most noncommissioned officers speak English - speculate that such assurances are given to make "the Americans feel good."

Border tribal-zone populations have long been pro-Taliban and pro-al Qaeda. Countless painted slogans and posters of Osama bin Laden, leader of the al Qaeda terrorist network, are visible in towns and villages throughout the three key tribal "agencies": Kurram, Orazkai and Kohat.

Tribal elders said that although the army had established interlocking fields of fire at four key mountain passes, it could not check dozens of other routes invisible from the air. A Pakistani captain, who asked that his name not be used, shared the same assessment.

Over a three-mile strip of foothills on the Pakistan side of the Spin Ghar range, one crest over from the Tora Bora mountains, two helicopters flew overhead at about 3,000 feet in poor visibility and could not have seen anyone on the ground. During a two-hour walk, several dozen tribesmen were seen coming from the direction of Afghanistan.

Scanning snowcapped Spin Ghar with binoculars revealed a wide range of ravines, crevasses, valleys and dry river beds - potential exfiltration routes for bin Laden's Arab fighters.

Bin Laden's picture, inscribed "Father of the Revolution," covered half the rear window of one bus that passed through army and frontier constabulary checkpoints without so much as an identification check of the passengers.

Scores of pickup trucks loaded with civilians similarly drove through the checkpoints unchallenged. Rubber-wheeled donkey carts with three or four passengers also were part of the traffic pattern.

A visiting reporter was stopped once and when the U.S. passport was produced, the civilian security official made clear that Americans were "not welcome." When asked whether that went for Taliban, too, he answered, "Taliban always welcome."

From Kohat, army headquarters for some of the tribal areas, to Parachinar, on the western edge of the frontier under surveillance, rock formations along the road had been daubed with slogans glorifying terrorist organizations and vilifying President Pervez Musharraf as an "American agent."

Bin Laden's picture was pinned to shutters and windows. Open-air markets also displayed the poster on the sides of stalls.

Sipah-e-Sahaba, or "Army of the Friends of the Prophet," and Shaish-e-Mohammed are among the most extreme religious organizations in Pakistan. They are particularly strong in the tribal belt and in Punjab, the country's largest province.

One rock-face advertisement said, "For Commando Training, Contact Shaish-e-Mohammed." Another one proclaimed, "Shaish-e-Mohammed and al Qaeda are Bubbling Blood Bothers." "Kill America" was painted on the outer wall of the "Handyside" army fort, named after a prominent colonial during the British Raj.

Once past the fort, the narrow road twists and turns alongside an ocher-colored, shrub-pocked limestone mountain on one side and a 3,000-foot precipice on the other.

Five-ton 10-wheelers, many adorned with bin Laden's face, manage to squeeze by in both directions. Shopkeepers and a cot-and-breakfast employee told our interpreter, an English-speaking native of the North Waziristan Tribal Agency, that al Qaeda had "an extensive network in the region." They did not believe that bin Laden would be turned over if he resurfaced in Kurram tribal turf.

The madrassa, or religious schools, network, local interlocutors said, easily could hide bin Laden and his top lieutenants indefinitely or until they could organize his clandestine passage by truck to Karachi, 1,000 miles south, where he could set sail for another part of the world.

This religious network works closely with the Inter-Services Intelligence agency, an organization long known for its pro-Taliban culture.

The tribal belt is also the territory of Massoud Azhe, an Indian-born terrorist who was exiled and re-emerged in this part of Pakistan where perpetrators of major crimes in government-run Pakistan would find safe haven.

Fazul Rehman, a major religious extremist firebrand, currently under house arrest, also enjoys an abundance of laudatory posters. Mullah Rehman used his mobile phone this week to try to negotiate the return of several thousand Pakistanti "volunteers" who crossed the border in the closing weeks of the Northern Alliance's campaign against the Taliban.

Some 500 Pakistani prisoners have been returned. About 8,000 are missing. They are a source of embarrassment to Gen. Musharraf and his new alliance with the United States.

. Distributed by United Press International, where Mr. de Borchgrave also is the editor at large.

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