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Agents at a makeshift FBI operations base set up in a smuggler's town in the northern tribal area of Waziristan that's full of former Taliban and al-Qaeda operatives, have to spend as much time guarding against counterattack as scouting. Surveillance of the Pashtun, who live there on hilltops in adobe forts surrounded by 15-foot-high walls, is difficult. The only way that U.S. surveillance can pick up anything is if suddenly one of these medieval-like castles receives a burst of visitors, rumbling up the dusty trails in four-by-fours, but that isn't happening anymore. Al-Qaeda is too wary. Earlier this month, the FBI agents became the hunted when two rockets crashed into their compound.
It's true that CIA and Pakistani agents have worked together to nab al-Qaeda senior aides such as Binalshibh and Palestinian bin Laden lieutenant Abu Zubaydah in Pakistan's big cities. But the tribal zone is a different story a sensitive region. U.S. commandos, now mostly confined to the Afghan side of the border, are rarely allowed to raid possible mountain hideouts on the Pakistan side, whether by themselves or with Pakistani officers. Under the current delicate political climate for the government of Musharraf, say senior U.S. and Pakistani officials, that would be a mission impossible. Many of the deeply religious clans there sympathize with bin Laden and are bound by tribal honor to shelter fugitives from the Pakistani police and army. The U.S. government's $27 million reward for bin Laden has little sway here; villagers don't trust the Pakistani government to cut them in on their share of the reward. They're just as suspicious of members of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency, who they believe might be collecting al-Qaeda payoffs and would kill them if they ratted. "We do have information about al-Qaeda," says a tribal chieftain in Quetta, "but we don't have a safe way of passing this on to the Americans."
In Pakistan's general elections on Oct. 10, pro-Taliban and al-Qaeda friendly religious parties won control over border governments in Baluchistan and the Northwest Frontier province. "If we start sending American troops on patrol into the tribal areas, we're going to have dead Americans," says a State Department official. Pakistani officials don't believe they would be any more successful. "Ninety percent of the time when we go after someone in there, we fail," says a senior police officer in Quetta. "Our intelligence in these areas is never any good."