In Hot Pursuit?

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The two men weren't supposed to be in the Pakistani city of Peshawar. They were, after all, fugitive Taliban from Afghanistan, enemies of Pakistan's ally, the U.S., and would have had to cross fearsome terrain and fortified checkpoints to get to Peshawar. Yet there they were, happy to explain their latest doings, disguised only by a switch of turbans from Taliban black to stripes. "Until now, we've been lying low," one told TIME's Rahimullah Yusufzai late last week. The Taliban, the two say, are regrouping in small, heavily armed bands along the border and launching attacks on U.S. forces in Afghanistan. "It's true we were demoralized after our defeats. But we haven't lost faith in Allah--or in our cause."

The Taliban claimed responsibility for a number of attacks, including one on March 19 in Khost, in eastern Afghanistan. There, shortly before midnight, a U.S. base came under mortar and automatic-weapons fire. The attackers had crept to within a few hundred feet of the U.S. camp and were using an old prison building as cover. After a 45-min. battle that saw AC-130 gunships in action against the Taliban, the Americans say, they found "more than 10" bodies around the building. The ex-Taliban in Peshawar, however, are not deterred. They say they will be back, that when the weather is warmer the ambushes will intensify.

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The Bush Administration originally declared Operation Anaconda a victory after al-Qaeda and Taliban forces were battered in the fighting at Shah-i-Kot, near Khost. But the bad guys in Afghanistan keep slipping away. Senior officials in Washington concede that "at least" hundreds of the enemy have crossed into Pakistan, where diplomatic and strategic considerations keep them beyond the reach of U.S. forces. Among the fleeing al-Qaeda, say intelligence sources in Islamabad, may have been Osama bin Laden's second-in-command, the Egyptian doctor Ayman al-Zawahiri. He was reportedly sighted a month ago, near Anaconda's mountainous battle zone. Says a Western diplomat in Islamabad, the Pakistani capital: "The Americans are feeling a hell of a lot of frustration."

That frustration has led the Administration to contemplate engaging in "hot pursuit," that is, chasing terrorist foes straight into Pakistan. "We're going after them," U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld vowed in early March. Soon, he was trying to tone down the talk, lauding the ties between the U.S. and Pakistan as "very good" or, as General Tommy Franks called them last week, "remarkable." It became apparent to Pentagon officials that Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf wasn't keen on letting U.S. troops charge across the border. He reportedly told the Administration that such a move could further inflame the Pashtun tribes in the border area--who already sympathize with their Taliban clansmen--and that it could stir up militants elsewhere in the country.

Will Musharraf let in Americans to help catch al-Qaeda renegades? Yes, as long as such operations are secret and it isn't the U.S. military doing the catching. One example of this became apparent at 3 a.m. last Thursday in the farming town of Faisalabad in central Pakistan, where a major raid took place. FBI agents had been tipped off that some al-Qaeda militants had taken shelter in several local safe houses. Any duty cop not snoozing at that hour probably noticed that the authorities had shut down the police radio frequency. That was a double precaution: the suspected terrorists could have been eavesdropping on the police band, and it was equally possible that al-Qaeda had informants deep within the Faisalabad security force. Working with the FBI, agents of the crack police elite force cut the electric fencing around one house and, using a bullhorn, called for the surrender of the suspected terrorists. They didn't give up easily. After a gun battle there and the stabbing of three policemen in another house, more than 50 alleged al-Qaeda members--42 of them non-Pakistanis--were finally corralled. Unconfirmed reports identified one as al-Qaeda's top financier and planner, the elusive Abu Zubaydah.

Whether these al-Qaeda suspects were fugitives from Afghanistan isn't known, but the message was clear: Musharraf would seek help from the U.S. in carrying out strikes against terrorist nests in Pakistan, but on his terms. This way, Pakistan's sovereignty is not violated and its intelligence agencies, particularly the powerful Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence, don't feel unduly diminished.

Dispatching al-Qaeda is easiest at the border, before the fugitives vanish into the jihad warrens in Pakistani cities, where they find shelter and are given fake passports, money and airline tickets by militant brethren. Tracking them at the frontier is a daunting job. Tribes have long wandered between the two countries, smuggling everything from heroin to Chinese bicycles along hundreds of mule paths threading through these jagged mountains.

To the U.S. complaint that the Pakistani army troops along these ridges failed to catch hundreds of al-Qaeda and Taliban escaping from Operation Anaconda, a Pakistani officer in Peshawar retorted, "If you missed these fighters with all your spy satellites, how do you expect us to find them without a decent pair of binoculars?" After the U.S. siege of the Tora Bora caves in December, Pakistani forces on the border grabbed some 240 suspected foreign terrorists, many of whom are now in Guantanamo Bay. The spillover from Operation Anaconda is less impressive: so far, only 12 al-Qaeda fighters have been caught in the Pakistani tribal lands close to the fighting.

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