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Tribes offer stiff resistance to hunt for Osama bin Laden
MIRAN SHAH, Pakistan -- Pashtun tribesman Anargul Khan has a Russian-made AK-47 assault rifle around his shoulder and a red rose behind his ear. The rose, Khan says, shows he is a a lover of peace -- the gun that he is ready for war.
It is men like Khan, children of this unforgiving and unconquerable tribal belt along the Pakistan-Afghan border, that the United States and Pakistan are struggling -- and failing -- to win over in their quest to hunt down Osama bin Laden, the al-Qaida mastermind believed hiding in their midst.
Tribal leaders have allowed Pakistani soldiers unprecedented access to their land, proof, they say, that they are willing to cooperate. But tribesmen told The Associated Press during a rare journey to their autonomous homeland that they are deeply mistrustful of the government and turning over men they see as Muslim holy warriors to infidel Americans would be unconscionable.
"I would sacrifice my own life, but I would never turn bin Laden over," said the 20-year-old Khan, flower tucked behind his ear -- as is local custom.
The large U.S. bounty on the al-Qaida leader's head means nothing to him, he added: "What is $25 million? If your faith is strong, then $100 million cannot buy you. If your faith is weak you can be bought for 10 rupees."
Bin Laden and his chief deputy, Ayman al-Zawahri, are believed to be hiding somewhere in the mountains between Afghanistan and Pakistan, leaning on the support of tribesmen like Khan to elude the largest dragnet in history.
Afghan and Western officials are convinced Taliban and al-Qaida fighters are hopping across the border from Waziristan, launching deadly attacks on coalition and Afghan troops, local officials and aid workers.
"We have intelligence that the areas of Waziristan -- North and South Waziristan -- are being mostly used by al-Qaida," Afghan Interior Minister Ali Ahmad Jalali told AP in a recent interview.
A rough place to operate
Even North Waziristan's Islamabad-appointed chief political officer, Sher Zada, says the area is a rough place for the government to operate.
"There are some very, very, very difficult areas in North and South Waziristan. Some areas are totally inaccessible," Zada said from his Miran Shah office. He said many residents sympathize with al-Qaida and the Taliban, but insisted his intelligence network was strong, and that a figure like bin Laden could not stay hidden forever.
Pakistani forces have recently stepped up operations along the border, focusing on North and South Waziristan and the Mohmand district to the north, all in the ultraconservative North West Frontier Province.
It is not a welcoming place. Nearly all men carry AK-47s and most women are dressed in body-shrouding burkas. Turreted mud fortresses owned by tribal elders and smugglers rise out of the hills. Feuds are common between families and clans, and often turn deadly. Poverty is endemic and illiteracy the norm.
"The troops are here for one reason and one reason only, and that is to track down al-Qaida and Taliban," said Zada.
It would not be the first time al-Qaida set up camp in the area.
Miran Shah, the capital of North Waziristan, lies just a few dusty miles from the Afghan border, and about 15 miles from al-Qaida's former Zhawar Kili Al-Badr camp, which America attacked with 70 Tomahawk cruise missiles in 1998 in retaliation for the bombings of two U.S. embassies in Africa. Bin Laden is believed to have left the camp shortly before the attack.
The Pakistani government reached an agreement with tribal elders in Waziristan about 10 months ago to allow army checkpoints and patrols in their territory in return for building schools and hospitals and improving irrigation.
As a result, Pakistani soldiers are operating in tribal areas that have not conceded to outside military forces in hundreds of years -- not from Pakistan and not from former British rulers. Residents say they have also seen American special forces in the area, but the participation of U.S. troops on Pakistani soil is officially denied by Islamabad and Washington.
It is a shaky arrangement, at best.
This month, a Pakistani military operation to hunt al-Qaida suspects in Bannu, on the edge of North Waziristan, was met by a barrage of rockets fired from within the tribal area. The culprits have not been found.
Noor Khaliq, a tribal elder wearing a shalwar kameez -- traditional baggy pants and long tunic -- and a starched yellow turban, said his clan would never cooperate with the United States.
"It is sheer cruelty to send people to Guantanamo and keep them like animals, and for that reason we would never hand them over," Khaliq said. "These are Muslims and they should not be handed over to America."
Khaliq and two other elders, who trekked six hours by camel and jeep from the Shawal region of North Waziristan to meet with AP last week, said the government is not holding up its end of the bargain, and the tribes are getting restless.
"In return for stopping al-Qaida from coming into our area, we were promised many things -- schools, hospitals, water -- but none of that has happened. Our pregnant women are dying on the way to the hospital, our children are studying under a tree because there is no school," said Mohammed Nawaz, an elder.
"We will be very upset if these promises are not kept. We will not support this for much longer," he added.
American forces are concerned about the Pakistan border area, but have not been able to pinpoint a Taliban or al-Qaida base of operations, said U.S. military spokesman Col. Rodney Davis.
The U.S. military maintains a base on the Afghan side in Khost, 30 miles northwest of Miran Shah. The base and another in Shkin, to the south, have come under near daily rocket attack by suspected Taliban insurgents. Two U.S. soldiers were killed and another wounded in an ambush north of Shkin on Aug. 31.
"Anti-coalition forces have on numerous occasions retreated toward the Pakistan border," Davis said from Bagram Air Base, the U.S. headquarters north of the Afghan capital, Kabul. "The border area between Afghanistan and Pakistan is very porous and some of the toughest terrain in the world."