Armed, well-connected skirt Pakistan's guarded border

Fleeing Taliban fighters, Afghan warlords pass, but guards stop refugees

War On Terrorism

The World

November 17, 2001|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

TORKHAM, Pakistan - English-speaking arrivals at the eastern border of Afghanistan at the Khyber Pass are greeted by this message on a Taliban signboard: "Faithful people with strong decision entry Afghanistan. Sacrifice country heartly welcomes you with pleases."

Baffling, yes. But somehow appropriate given the Kafkaesque environment that has taken hold along the 1,500-mile-long Afghan-Pakistani border. From the Khyber Pass in the north to vast deserts in the south, it has become a busy two-way portal for warriors of all stripes.

Well-connected Afghan tribal leaders, in exile for years, have recently made their way back through official road crossings, despite border closings that have prevented thousands of exiles from returning west and thousands of refugees from fleeing east.

Taliban fighters, meanwhile, are reportedly making their way out of Afghanistan by the hundreds, welcomed into lawless Pakistani tribal territories even though the Pakistani army has sent tanks to try to stop them. According to Iranian radio reports, one of the recent arrivals might be Osama bin Laden.

All Deva Gul knows is that he wants to go home to Afghanistan now that the Taliban are gone, but Pakistani officials won't let him cross.

"I have been here for three days, but no one is moving" says Gul, one of about 2,000 recent arrivals at this border town hemmed closely by towering rocky bluffs.

A Pakistani border official, Ghulam Farooq, shrugs, saying Gul and the others can't go because he's not certain who's in charge on the other side now that the Taliban have fled. He believes that it's Yunis Khalis, well-connected with the Northern Alliance, and says, "It's up to Khalis. When he gives the decision, we will open the border."

There are exceptions to the rules, of course: People with enough weapons, stealth or connections in Islamabad, the Pakistani capital, can do as they wish. That's why Farooq had orders to let exiled tribal leader Haji Mohammad Zaman pass into Afghanistan when he arrived with a convoy of armed supporters and family members. Armed with light weapons but nothing resembling a visa, Zaman's entourage, including a few busloads of foreign journalists, sailed through the border.

Zaman, like, Khalis, would like to end up governing Jalalabad, or perhaps the entire Nangarhar province, and the Pakistani government apparently favors him, though Home Office officials wouldn't comment either on why Zaman could pass or why the 2,000 other exiles couldn't.

Adding to the surreal scene were vehicles in Zaman's convoy ferrying family and friends of the late Abdul Haq. Haq, another exiled Afghan tribal leader, was killed last month by the Taliban after they caught him trying to stir up anti-Taliban sentiment.

It turned out that he was a few weeks ahead of schedule. In the wake of the Northern Alliance's rapid advance, tribal leaders who had tolerated the Taliban for years began to ask them to leave.

Border closings have apparently not stopped Taliban fighters from crossing into Pakistan. The Taliban use unauthorized routes through the mountains and valleys, blending in with the tribesmen in seven districts along the Pakistani border in which few national laws apply.

That is one reason Pakistan might now seem to offer a more secure home than Afghanistan for Osama bin Laden. Iranian radio reported yesterday that bin Laden was most likely living in Pakistan in tribal territory southwest of Peshawar, apparently deciding he would rather risk an encounter with a Pakistani tank than with a B-52.

The report, however, didn't name its source and stressed that it was a probability, not a certainty - a perfect fit, it seemed, for this uncertain frontier.

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