by John J. Lumpkin, Associated Press
WASHINGTON (AP) - The entry of U.S. government
personnel into the wild tribal regions of Pakistan
marks the beginning of a dangerous but necessary turn,
in the American view, in the hunt for al-Qaida
fighters who have taken refuge outside
The American military is prepared to send in troops
to join the hunt, thanks to a recent agreement between
U.S. and Pakistani officials, according to several
U.S. officials. U.S. personnel already are searching
for remnants of the al-Qaida terror network in rugged
northwestern Pakistan; the troops would be sent in if
reconnaissance were to find any fighters, said a
defense official who spoke on condition of
Tribal areas are just over the border from
Afghanistan's Paktia and Paktika provinces are
traditional strongholds for Osama bin Laden, the
Saudi-born fugitive who heads al-Qaida, and his
followers. Many al-Qaida camps and caves in those
provinces were inherited from anti-Soviet mujahedeen
fighters in the 1980s. Their backdoors always faced
the Pakistani tribal areas, where the Soviets could
The U.S., Canadian and British forces fighting in
those Afghan provinces faced the same problem, unable
to pursue fleeing al-Qaida and Taliban fighters in any
numbers, and had been unable to hunt al-Qaida members
in Pakistan at all.
The porous border has little meaning to locals and
al-Qaida, but it holds substantial political
significance for the United States and Pakistan.
President Pervez Musharraf has defied strong
anti-American sentiment among the Pakistanis to
support President Bush in countering terror, but the
possible presence of U.S. ground forces inside
Pakistan could serve to further heighten tensions
The Pakistan army treads lightly in this region and
has been unable to police its border alone. Thousands
of Pakistani troops also are tied up facing India at
its eastern reaches, and former U.S. officials with
experience in the region say even hundreds of
thousands of troops would be unable to plug every
trail in the mountainous northwest.
Pakistan's tribal belt is ruled by deeply
conservative, fiercely independent tribesmen who swear
little allegiance to anyone but tribal elders and to
laws laid out by tradition and the tenets of Islam.
Tribesmen who live in high-walled compounds have
warned against U.S. soldiers on their territory.
Large religious schools flourish, and fiercely
anti-American and pro-Taliban religious parties have
The parties' flags fly from rooftops, above slogans
scribbled on walls that say "death to America" and
"Long live Mullah Omar and Osama bin Laden," referring
to the Taliban and al-Qaida leaders.
Publicly, Islamabad denied any knowledge of U.S.
"No U.S. personnel are present in Pakistan's tribal
areas searching for al-Qaida men," Aziz Ahmad Khan,
spokesman for the Pakistani Foreign Ministry, told The
However, Pakistani intelligence and Interior
Ministry sources confirmed that civilian U.S.
officials, with the help of Pakistani authorities, are
quietly working in the areas to trace the remnants of
U.S. forces occasionally have pursued al-Qaida
fighters across the border into Pakistan, a senior
U.S. official told the AP. This is separate from the
operation being prepared for Pakistan itself, the
official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Asked about reports that U.S. military attacks have
begun, the official said, "I can't say we've gotten to
that point yet."
The Bush administration and Pakistan worked out
rules of engagement several weeks ago, U.S. officials
said. The Musharraf government has stood by them
despite reports of wavering, one said.
Some of the terms were unclear, including whether
the United States could conduct airstrikes against
al-Qaida targets that emerge on Pakistani soil.
Because of Pakistani support, the United States has
established a substantial presence in parts of
Pakistan some distance from the Afghan border,
including at several military bases used to support
operations in Afghanistan. In addition, FBI agents and
CIA operatives took part in the urban raids that led
to last month's capture of Abu Zubaydah, Osama bin
Laden's top field commander.
Previously, Pentagon officials had indicated they
thought it improbable that Pakistan would agree to
joint military operations in pursuit of suspected
terrorists inside Pakistan, and some have said they
believe it would be unwise because of a likely
The approach taken by Gen. Tommy Franks, the U.S.
commander of the war in Afghanistan, had been to
coordinate and consult with the Pakistan military in
pursuing al-Qaida fugitives but to let Pakistan carry
out most of the operations.
The main U.S. role had been in providing
intelligence and law enforcement support, rather than
direct military involvement.