Andrew Maykuth Online
The Philadelphia Inquirer
January 17, 2006

A porous Pakistan-Afghan border has sheltered international outlaws

British colonials created the border separating Pakistan and Afghanistan in 1893. But the semiautonomous Pashtun tribes who live along the frontier have never fully recognized that the barrier applies to local residents.

While Afghanistan and Pakistan maintain official checkpoints along the 1,470-mile border, local tribesmen can freely move across the border along the hundreds of unguarded livestock trails and smuggling routes that traverse the rugged mountains. Many Pashtuns claim citizenship in both Afghanistan and Pakistan, as suits their convenience.

The porous region provides a haven to international outlaws. After the American invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, Osama bin Laden is believed to have narrowly escaped across the remote paths to Pakistan, where he is thought still to be hiding with his top lieutenant, Ayman al-Zawahiri.

American soldiers fighting in Afghanistan express frustration at being unable to pursue Taliban fighters who retreat into Pakistani tribal areas such as Waziristan. The harsh reaction in Pakistan to last week's CIA-directed missile attack in the village of Damadola illustrates the political risks the Americans face by carrying out actions in Pakistan.

The border area is a land of extremes. The stark, high desert is frigid in the winter, scorching in the summer, and largely devoid of trees. Outsiders are unwelcome. Pakistan requires foreigners to obtain a permit to enter the zone, and visitors must be escorted.

For most of Pakistan's modern history, the tribal areas were off-limits even to the military. Under pressure from the Americans to exert more control over the tribal areas, Pakistan's army has conducted recent operations against suspected terrorist bases. But the missions are often well-telegraphed; the key targets frequently escape.

While Pashtuns barely tolerate outsiders, they are fiercely loyal to those who win their respect. Bin Laden operated in the area during the war to oust Soviet occupation forces in the 1980s. Many of the Taliban leaders who governed Afghanistan in the post-Soviet era were Pashtuns from the region. The bonds are deep.


On Pakistan's Wild Frontier

Known as the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, the mountainous region covers about 10,500 square miles - a little larger than New Jersey.

* The population is estimated at three million to six million, mostly Pashtun tribesmen with historical ties to Pashtuns in Afghanistan.

* Seven "agencies" make up the Federally Administered Tribal Areas - Khyber, Kurram, Orakzai, Mohmand, Bajaur, North Waziristan and South Waziristan. The U.S. air strike last week was in the Bajaur agency.

* About 3 percent of the population lives in towns. The economy is chiefly pastoral - sheep and goats. Farmers grow some crops in the region's few fertile valleys, including poppies; the region has been a major center for opium production and trafficking.

* Few of Pakistan's federal laws are enforced in the tribal areas. Tribal councils of men - not women - govern through consensus deeply rooted in tradition. home page   
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