Where al Qaeda and the Taliban Hide Out

U.S. military wrestles with the problem of the Afghan-Pakistani border region.

Pakistani Taliban supporters pray for those killed in an alleged US missile strike.
By SHARE

BAGRAM, AFGHANISTAN—Pakistan's ungoverned tribal region has been both a Taliban haven and a constant headache for NATO partners throughout the war here. But their frustration with the area is growing, as cross-border attacks coming from the Federally Administrated Tribal Areas of Pakistan, commonly known here as the FATA, doubled from 20 in March 2007 to 41 in March 2008 in eastern Afghanistan alone.

U.S. forces drove home that displeasure last week with a Predator attack—the fourth since January—on what U.S. officials described as an al Qaeda and Taliban sanctuary.

Among U.S. troops, too, frustration with cross-border movement of the Taliban is increasing, along with the movement itself. "Between this year and last, it was significantly worse this year," says former State Department official Daniel Markey, now senior fellow for India, Pakistan, and South Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Col. Bill Carranza, the staff judge advocate at the U.S. military's Combined Air Operations Center, says he is getting "a lot of questions" passed up through commanders from troops on the ground about rules of engagement along the border—how to respond to attacks, whether to pursue for potshots. "But a border's a border," he says. "Commanders tend to be very cautious around them."

So, too, are U.S. officials "They have been deeply reluctant to go into tribal areas," says a U.S. military analyst, who adds that Special Operations forces "have been begging for sustained operations" in the FATA, so far to no avail.

They are lobbying because every major insurgent group "has a command-and-control structure on the Pakistan side of the border," says Seth Jones, an Afghanistan analyst at the Rand Corporation. A highway that runs from Quetta, Pakistan—the epicenter of Taliban operations—to Kandahar, Afghanistan "has been a major route for weapons and fighters. You can basically jump on it and drive a truck all the way through. When I was there, there wasn't a lot stopping you. It's been a complete sieve," says Jones.

"It is a tremendous source of sanctuary," agrees Lt. Col. Bill Pinter, strategist for the Combined Air Operations Center. Though "lots of operations occur on the border, they are highly restricted," he says.

Predators fly just inside the Afghan border area "constantly," adds a U.S. military official. Even while flying within the constraints of the border, the official adds, "We can see pretty well into" Pakistan.

In the meantime, border incursions will be one of the major problems facing U.S. marines as they attempt to clear contested areas of southern Afghanistan's Helmand province in the weeks to come.