History keeps repeating itself in Afghanistan. In December 2001, when the allies encircled al-Qaeda's craggy mountain retreat of Tora Bora, Osama bin Laden and his cronies slipped away, leaving foot soldiers as decoys for the bunker busters and special-ops bullets. Last month another opportunity to round up al-Qaeda terrorists was botched--this time by fighting among U.S. allies. Afghan fighters and some 2,000 Pakistani troops deployed to help hunt down al-Qaeda holdovers not far from Tora Bora instead turned their weapons on one another. By the time things calmed down, two weeks later, any terrorists there had slipped away.
The U.S. had pushed Pakistan for months to launch this operation. Military intelligence suggested that a dozen terrorists--possibly including bin Laden--might be holed up in the feisty Mohmand tribe's mountain stronghold, which straddles the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. The plan was to have the Pakistanis sweep into the tribal area while U.S. troops sealed off the Afghan side, trapping the terrorists. Things went awry when Mohmand tribesmen and Afghan fighters supporting the U.S. forces attacked the Pakistani soldiers. The Pakistanis, unsurprisingly, shot back. All together a dozen were killed or injured, and the U.S. was left to referee a nasty diplomatic donnybrook between key allies.
The two nations' animosity runs deep. Historical grievances about Pakistan's former sponsorship of the Taliban, and more recent ones over what Kabul claims are Pakistani incursions into its territory, played into the hostilities. A mob of Afghans furious about the alleged incursions trashed the Pakistani embassy in Kabul last week. Afghan President Hamid Karzai is vexed by the refuge Taliban leaders have found in Pakistan's northwestern provinces. "The Afghans are convinced that the Pakistanis know where these Taliban leaders are--but they won't catch them," a diplomat explains. It was only after Karzai and Pakistani leader Pervez Musharraf spoke on the telephone last Thursday--prompted by U.S. pressure, say diplomats--that the border crisis was defused. According to sources in Kabul and Islamabad, military operations against suspected al-Qaeda hideouts have resumed. --By Tim McGirk