Taliban Sympathizers Take Refuge in Pakistan A spate of recent incidents has prompted fears that the war in Afghanistan may be spilling across the border into Pakistan's historically restive tribal areas. The region is home to many supporters of the Taliban, and possibly to al-Qaida operatives.

Taliban Sympathizers Take Refuge in Pakistan

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This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm John Ydstie, sitting in for Steve Inskeep.


And I'm Renee Montagne.

In Pakistan, every week seems to bring news of another suicide attack, missile strike or roadside bomb. Much of the unrest is in the country's remote western tribal areas. This semi-autonomous region stretches along the mountains that make up the border with Afghanistan. Most of the six million Pakistanis who live there are poor villagers.

YDSTIE: Foreign journalists and aid workers are routinely blocked from visiting, and some parts are no-go areas even for the Pakistani Army. U.S. intelligence officials say al-Qaida uses the border areas as a base of operations for international terrorist attacks. Pakistani authorities deny that, but even they admit the tribal lands are thick with Taliban sympathizers.

NPR's Mary Louise Kelly traveled to Pakistan and has our report.

MARY LOUISE KELLY: Our story begins, as so many good ones do, in the Khyber Pass. To get there, you come to Peshawar, a big city in northwestern Pakistan, and you head west.

(Soundbite of sirens)

KELLY: Just driving toward the edge of Peshawar to cross into the tribal areas, we're passing through Afghan refugee camps. Because we're going to be entering an area where foreigners aren't normally permitted, they've (unintelligible) four police officers. They're sitting with guns across their laps in a truck just in front of us. They've got sirens blaring, lights flashing, a little questionable if the point is to guarantee our security, because it's guaranteeing that everyone who wasn't looking at us before is looking at now.

A few miles outside Peshawar we reach a checkpoint.

(Soundbite of people speaking foreign language)

KELLY: Tribal security forces take over the escort duties here and start leading us high into the mountains towards the Khyber Pass on the Afghan-Pakistan border. Many centuries ago, Alexander the Great marched his army through here. Later came Persian fighters, Mongols, Tartars and Turks. Today it's not the movement of great armies that's prompting concern, but handfuls of Taliban and al-Qaida fighters crossing back and forth. They're causing problems here in Pakistan's tribal regions and stoking fears that the war in Afghanistan may be spilling across the border.

(Soundbite of drumming)

KELLY: Today the only tribal fighters in evidence are those wearing the uniform of Pakistan's Frontier Corps. Outside the officers mess, they put on a show for visiting dignitaries. Apparently NPR reporters make the cut.

All told, Pakistan has 80,000 troops along the border with Afghanistan. Their job includes fighting terrorism in Pakistan's tribal agencies, seven remote border districts plagued by weak government, huge numbers of weapons and growing Islamic extremism.

Pakistani intelligence officials insist the number of foreigners hiding here is actually pretty small, a couple hundred central Asians from Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, 60 or 70 Arabs, some Chechens and Chinese. But the officials concede there are thousands of Afghans in Pakistan's tribal areas, many with pro-Taliban sympathies, sympathies shared, the officials say, by hundreds, perhaps thousands of radicalized Pakistani supporters.

Rahim al-Usisai, a veteran journalist here, says you can stand and watch them crossing at Torham, at the end of the Khyber Pass.

Mr. RAHIM AL-USISAI (Journalist): You look at the people who are crossing the border all the time, from sunrise to sunset. Ten thousand people on an average enter Pakistan from Afghanistan every day. Five thousand people cross over to Afghanistan from Pakistan. And anybody among them could be a terrorist, a criminal, a smuggler.

KELLY: And that's just the travelers recorded at official checkpoints. U.S. and NATO commanders in Afghanistan say they face a huge problem. Taliban and al-Qaida-linked fighters who attack and then fall back across the border, finding safe haven in Pakistan.

At a Senate hearing two weeks ago, CIA director Michael Hayden testified that safe haven gives them the physical and even psychological space they need to meet, train, plan and prepare new attacks. Afghanistan's government, meanwhile, goes farther still. President Hamid Karzai charges that Taliban leader Mullah Omar is, quote, “for sure living in the Pakistani city Queta.”

Put these allegations to Liuetenant General Ali Orakzai, and you can practically watch the hairs on his neck bristle.

Lieutenant General ALI ORAKZAI (Governor, NWFP): I say that the problem resides in Afghanistan.

KELLY: Orakzai is governor of Pakistan's Northwest Frontier Province.

Lt. Gen. ORAKZAI: If Taliban are fighting the Iran forces or other coalition forces, those Taliban belong to Afghanistan. If Mullah Omar is fighting, Mullah Omar is an Afghan, and is sitting in Kandahar or wherever, you know. But they are very prone to say, oh, Mullah Omar is sitting in Queta. No, this is absolutely wrong. Because Afghanistan is a failed state, they're trying to dump the entire blame on Pakistan.

KELLY: General Orakzai's offices and residence are a pristine white mansion set deep in jewel-green lawns studded with peacocks and groundskeepers. Beyond the walls lies Peshawar, the crowded, polluted, exotic capital of Pakistan's Northwest Frontier Province. Extremism is unquestionably rising here. Two weeks ago, a suicide bomber blew himself up and wounded two policemen. That's the seventh bombing in Peshawar in two months.

There are other telling signs. Across the city, women's faces have been ripped off billboards and alcohol was recently banned, even for non-Muslims. The room service menu at the Pearl Continental, the best hotel in town, has a black line crossed through the listing for beer and hard liquor, another nod to Taliban-style piety. On the other hand, you can buy Versace sunglasses here, or a spicy nugget value meal at KFC. “Desperate Housewives” is popular on satellite TV. You'll find similar contradictions in Jubei(ph), a village 40 minutes' drive north.

(Soundbite of village)

KELLY: There are no paved roads here or power the day we visited. Most people in Jubei live in mud huts and work the fields. Sugarcane and tobacco are big. We're not far from Dargai, where a suicide bomber last month killed dozens of Pakistani Army recruits. People here are angry about that and it's in places like Jubei, desperately poor and cut off from the outside world, that radicalism is feared to be on the rise. Yet most of the villagers we met professed indifference for the Taliban. And as for al-Qaida, we found no backers.

Sahid Ahman(ph), a village elder who seemed to command the respect of the other men, says he has no time for Osama bin Laden.

Mr. SAHID AHMAN (Village Elder): (Through translator) We're not concerned about him because we're concerned about our country and we're having so many problems. We're just concerned about peace and security in our country. And Osama can go to hell.

KELLY: Another man, a retired soldier named Lao Gul(ph), says he's worried the recent suicide bombings in Peshawar and particularly in Dargai, may mark the beginning of a new phase of terrorism in Pakistan.

Mr. LAO GUL (Retired Soldier): (Foreign language spoken)

Unidentified Woman (Translator): He says now that this it's started (unintelligible) and now you're going to witness a lot of bombings. This has given birth to attacks and bombings.

KELLY: In the tribal areas?

Unidentified Woman: (Foreign language spoken)

Mr. GUL: (Foreign language spoken)

Unidentified Woman: He thinks it's going to be throughout the country.

KELLY: General Orakzai, the top government official in the region, disputes this. He says Pakistan, even the tribal areas, is on balance very stable. And again, Orakzai himself was attacked a few weeks ago. Rockets rained down on a military camp as he made a speech in south Waziristan, the southernmost tribal agency. Orakzai was forced to cancel his plans and fly back to Peshawar by helicopter. He call the episode a very minor incident.

Mary Louise Kelly, NPR News.

YDSTIE: You can catch another of Mary Louise's reports from Pakistan later today on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. That one focuses on Pakistan's delicate balancing act in the war on terror.

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