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Last Updated: Thursday, 31 July, 2003, 05:13 GMT 06:13 UK
Fighting al-Qaeda in Pakistan's frontier

By Paul Anderson
BBC correspondent in North-West Frontier Province

A Pakistani tribal troop with an Afghan fighter - 2001
Tribal bonds link the population on both sides of the border

For the first time ever the Pakistani army has been deployed to parts of the tribal areas in the country's north-west to flush out Taleban remnants using the porous border with Afghanistan.

The tribal areas have historically been autonomous, governed by tribal leaders and their own laws.

But Pakistan is now trying to exert some control on a federal level.

It's hard to imagine how the battery of 120 millimetre guns maintained by the soldiers on the border could be useful in the guerilla war currently being waged by the Taleban just inside Afghanistan.

But army commanders say that this is not the point.

The artillery is intended as proof of Pakistan's seriousness in fighting the war on terror on one of its few identifiable front lines.

Making a difference

"We have deployed our troops along the border, along all the entry points... into Pakistan from Afghanistan," explains Lieutenant Colonel Zaffar Iqbal at a briefing at a new military outpost near the Khyber Pass.

Pakistan has spread thousands of troops along the 1,600-mile border.

And according to Brigadier Khadim Hussain the troops are already having an effect.

"Since the time that we have moved in we have sealed this border very effectively and we are not allowing any undesirable element into our area.

"If at all there is some undesirable element reported, he is nabbed right at the border. There is nothing happening as far as we are concerned on our side," the brigadier says confidently.

But many people say the border is so leaky that the Taleban and their sympathisers have been able to regroup.

Although the United States announced the end of major combat operations in Afghanistan in May, attacks have spiralled in recent months.

The Americans say extremists hit and then run back across the border into Pakistan.

Rahimullah Yusufzai, a Pakistani analyst, says that they are probably right.

"I know for sure that a number of these al-Qaeda and Taleban officials are hiding in Pakistan," he says.

"Of the 500 al-Qaeda fighters who were captured in Pakistan, about 70% were captured in this province - the tribal areas as well."

Soft tactics

But the Pakistanis have another weapon in their arsenal to get around this issue - development projects designed to win the hearts and minds of locals.

We haven't seen the Taleban here but if they come near our homes we'll teach them a lesson
Haji Malang, tribal elder

The army is helping to build schools, new electricity, water and road projects in the tribal areas.

Pakistan says this is the key to winning public support and tapping into a formidable ground intelligence network.

Tribal elders like Haji Malang, say they are grateful to the army.

"We haven't seen the Taleban here but if they come near our homes we'll teach them a lesson," he says.

"We have no sympathy for them. And don't even talk about al-Qaeda - we hate them."

Is Bin Laden dead?

So could the key target of the war on terror, Osama Bin Laden, head of the al-Qaeda network, conceivably be in the tribal areas?

Rahimullah Yusufzai believes it is possible.

"If he's alive - and I think that he is alive," he says, "he could be anywhere in the border areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan."

"We know that he has a lot of support among the tribal people and also in the rest of Pakistan."

If he is in Pakistan he can't hide forever.

But the pressure is mounting to find him.

The longer he remains at large, the more damaging it is ultimately to Washington's objectives in the region.

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