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From the camps, convoys of trucks go up well-maintained roads that seem to lead nowhere. In fact, they end in tiny Afghan villages just across the border, where the trucks dump ammunition and weapons in safe houses. Later, according to U.S. Army officials, small groups of between four and a dozen terrorists from the camps cross the border amid the flow of civilian traffic. Once inside Afghanistan, the Americans say, the terrorists are assisted by abettors who provide money, pass on information about U.S. troop movements and safeguard supplies. Loaded with equipment and intelligence, the al-Qaeda forces then move out to harass American troops. Since the U.S. forces cannot cross into Pakistan, they can only try to catch the terrorists after they re-enter Afghanistan.
For the Administration of George W. Bush, the recent attacks and the evidence that al-Qaeda may be regrouping in Pakistan come at a terrible time. Washington is determined to eliminate Iraq's weapons of mass destruction and has made clear that it believes the best way of doing so is by military action. Adding another problem to a plateful of them, the Administration disclosed last week that North Korea, in breach of an agreement signed in 1994, had admitted to restarting its program to develop nuclear weapons. And the crisis between the Israelis and the Palestinians, with its potential for poisoning relations between the U.S. and moderate regimes in the Muslim world, seems as intractable as ever. Mighty the U.S.'s resources may be, but in terms of military, diplomacy, intelligence gathering and synthesis, the system is being stretched. The CIA, with a limited number of spies and a small paramilitary force, will find it hard to wage a worldwide war against al-Qaeda at the same time as it must collect evidence of weapons programs in Iraq and perhaps hunt down Saddam Hussein. A war in Iraq, says a senior U.S. intelligence official, "will make things harder but not impossible. It cannot help but strain us."
Of all these challenges, the enduring potency of Islamic fanaticism may be the most difficult. To its credit, the Administration has never claimed that the struggle against terrorism would be anything other than long and arduous. Yet the success of the bombing campaign in Afghanistan, coupled with the arrest of such key al-Qaeda leaders as Ramzi Binalshibh, who allegedly handled the logistics for the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, led some to look on the bright side. Nobody pretended that al-Qaeda was finished. But there was quite recently a sense that it might be capable of only relatively small-scale, opportunistic attacks against "soft" Western targets, especially outside the U.S. This year's attacks on German tourists in Tunisia and French contract workers in Pakistan fit that pattern.