An article of faith in the West is that the al-Qaeda masterminds of the terrorist attacks of September 2001 — as well as terrorist bombings in Islamabad, Peshawar, and Karachi — have taken refuge in sanctuaries in Pakistan’s rugged western border areas. There is a related notion — equally common in the West — that Pakistani security forces make no effort to hunt down such murderers, who have also shed much Pakistani blood. So I would like to offer a few observations based upon my own experience in Pakistan. Not so many years ago, I was fortunate to visit South Waziristan. I will never forget the immense beauty of the rugged Pakistani mountain ranges between Afghanistan and Pakistan, a region that has much to teach the West about the manhunt for terrorists and miscreants who may in fact be hiding in these remote areas.
Picture this: valleys with walls so steep and narrow that the rotor tips of even the smallest helicopter would be snapped off during any attempt to land. Vault-like mountain hollows where not even a mule — let alone a truck or other wheeled vehicle — can enter. Narrow mountain footpaths, snaking through beautiful but impenetrable valleys, and along hair-raising mountain ledges and ridges. No roads. No infrastructure. Walled family compounds with turreted defensive positions at all four corners perched in high mountain passes.
The reader who can picture such conditions has actually begun to appreciate the challenges to a determined and capable army or frontier force — like Pakistan’s — whose objective is to find one man, or even one hundred men, across miles of such terrain.
Thinking about how the West perceives Pakistan’s efforts to fight terrorism on its own soil also brings to mind the case of one Eric Robert Rudolph. Accused of bombing the Atlanta Olympics, and an Alabama abortion clinic, this American terrorist disappeared into the mountains of North Carolina in 1998.
The Tarheel State’s beautiful blue mountain ranges are breathtaking and memorable, but in no way are they as rugged or challenging as the mountains in the Pakistan/Afghanistan border region. A comparison is not even close.
Moreover, in contrast to Pakistan’s mountains, miles of paved roads and marked fire trails through the North Carolina ranges and the Appalachians allow the use of the heaviest search vehicles and rotary wing aircraft. Yet five years passed before the US authorities were able to locate Rudolph and bring him to justice. In fact, his capture was almost completely a matter of chance.
One cannot help but wonder, then, about the intense pressure on Pakistan to find needles in the immense haystack of the Hindukush — a task that is several orders of magnitude more difficult than the five-year manhunt for Rudolph in America and other fugitives in the West.
The presence of Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda in Pakistan would be a scourge on that beautiful and friendly nation. Personally, I am convinced that the region would witness an immediate change in Western policy and behavior if bin Laden were produced — dead or alive. But until that day comes, it is only right that the world give credit to Pakistan for the sheer magnitude of the geographical challenges it faces in the hunt for terrorists on its own soil.
Likewise, the West should not forget what Pakistan has accomplished — at great human cost — against terrorists and foreign fighters in its rugged mountains. This is the result of determination, resourcefulness and ingenuity, brought to bear courageously in one of our planet’s most challenging landscapes.
By: Richard J Douglas
Richard J Douglas was US Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Counter-narcotics during the Bush Administration. He has visited Pakistan on multiple occasions. Reach him at email@example.com