Religious pressure, money help protect Qaeda hiding places
SHKIN: From a mosque high on an Afghan border mountain, tribal elder Mohammed Safai pointed Sunday to what he said was an Al Qaeda training camp, on Salor Gai mountain, he said - just across the frontier in Pakistan.
One by one, fellow Afghan tribal leaders around him ticked off the names of surrounding Pakistani villages that they say are sheltering Al Qaeda and Taliban: Bahna village. Shakul. Mangadthai.
Their Pakistani Pashtun brothers across the way know the terror camps and hiding places just as well, the Afghan Pashtun elders said. Across the border, the Pakistani military is pressing its largest-ever hunt for Al Qaeda in the Pakistani tribal lands splayed out below the mud hamlets on these Afghan peaks.
But the tribal elders in Pakistan will likely never tell — silenced by the Pashtunwalli code of honour, by Al Qaeda money, and by a fierce distrust of the far-off Pakistani government with its different ethnic groups, Pashtun leaders said.
“The Pakistani forces are doing operations against Al Qaeda and Taliban, but I don’t think they will be successful,” Safai said. “The tribal area people, they are sympathizers with Al Qaeda and Taliban. They are not showing the exact location where Al Qaeda is hiding.” “You know the Al Qaeda people, they are so rich - they are giving so much money to the people who are giving shelter to Al Qaeda and Taliban,” added Mirowgain Khan, like Safai, an Afghan elder of the Pashtun Kharoti tribe.
Pakistan’s influential and virulently anti-American Jamaat-e-Islami religious party is helping seal the silence, circulating among Pakistani border villages to encourage the Pashtun there to be faithful hosts to their Al Qaeda and Taliban guests, say the Afghans, who have lived out their lives within sight of the tribal areas, crossing over to them at will.
Across the little-marked and little-heeded Afghan-Pakistan border, Pakistani forces on Sunday were searching homes in South Waziristan in a six-day-old hunt for suspected Al Qaeda that has seen dozens of people killed and more than 100 people arrested.
Pakistan military leaders said they believed a “high-value” suspect might be hunkered down in the area of the hunt, identified as a possible hiding place of Osama bin Laden deputy Ayman al-Zawarhri.
Since late 2001, when the US-led campaign routed Afghanistan’s Taliban regime, these mountains linking Afghanistan and Pakistan are believed to have become one of the leading refuges of the Taliban and Al Qaeda.
In South Wazirstan, local officials and residents said they had no idea whether there was an Al Qaeda camp on Salor Gai, as the Afghans charge. On Thursday, Safai said, six Al Qaeda fighters seeking escape from the Pakistan operation fled here, to these villages around a US military outpost at Shkin.
Safai sent tribal gunmen, chasing off five of the men, and capturing a sixth, he said. The man was Al Qaeda, a Chechen, speaking a little Pashto and Dari, the two leading languages in Afghanistan.
Tribal men took an AK-47 and seven grenades off the fugitives, and turned the Chechen over to the US military at Shkin.
Around Shkin, tribal elders were worried Sunday after they were warned in an anonymous letter passed to them that their villages would be rocketed if they failed to release the Chechen.
The elders repeat a common complaint of Afghans here in Paktika province, on the border - that neither side, Pakistan or Afghan, does anything to close the frontier to Taliban and Al Qaeda, crossing freely. In two days in the border mountains of Paktika, an Associated Press reporter saw no Afghan troops in the countryside, and only one or two vehicles of American forces. Afghans here insist they welcome the American forces, seeing them as the promise of reconstruction, aid and security - but said they needed to seek help from locals who know the hundreds of cross-border trails. “If they want to stop the Al Qaeda, they have to get support of the local people, living and belong to this area. They know all the ways,” Safai said.
Pakistan says its paramilitary and soldiers are alert against any “miscreants” crossing the border.
“Our people, who are guarding the border, know these tribesmen very well,” Abdul Rauf Chaudhry, spokesman for Pakistan’s Interior Ministry, said in Islamabad, the Pakistan capital. Looking at Salor Gai mountain, Safai scoffed.
“If you wanted to, you could walk from there to Kabul, and not hit a single checkpoint,” he said. —AP