Something very secret is happening in the mountains above Miram Shah. Until a few months ago, this forsaken corner of Pakistan's Northwest Frontier Province was effectively off-limits to the Islamabad government's own security forces. Tribal elders were the unchallenged rulers of Waziristan, as the area is called. Now foreign troops are said to be roaming the high country, going anywhere they choose and apparently looking for something important. A shepherd named Ghulam came down a few days ago and told of being stopped and searched by English-speaking soldiers. "One of the Americans helped me round up my sheep after they questioned me," he told NEWSWEEK. Another local tribesman reported seeing a squad of seven Americans. When Pakistani authorities heard his story, he says, they forced him to sign a statement that the GIs were on the Afghan side of the border. "But they were actually in Pakistan," he insisted, even as he signed.
It's hardly a routine mission. Officially there are no foreign troops in Pakistan other than a few logistical-support personnel. The Pentagon has confirmed only that on April 30 it launched an operation code-named Mountain Lion, using unspecified numbers of elite British, Australian and U.S. 101st Airborne troopers, to seek out possible Qaeda hideouts. For the record, officials won't even say where the forces are searching. But military sources privately confirm that U.S. Army Rangers and Delta operatives are inside Pakistan, working with local police. In the Afghan city of Khowst, just over the pass from Miram Shah, a well-connected Afghan intelligence official says Mountain Lion will soon expand into a major offensive on both sides of the border. "They have a plan to go into Miram Shah to do an operation," he says. "There are 1,200 Americans and Brits in the tribal areas right now. They're working very hard. They're in a hurry."
They may have good reason. Last week the Afghan chief of military intelligence in Khowst, Hazrat Uddin, said he had received "credible reports" that Osama bin Laden and his top lieutenant, Ayman al-Zawahiri, were seen near a place called Maidan, a village north of Miram Shah inside Pakistan. The source said bin Laden had trimmed his beard and appeared healthy, Uddin told NEWSWEEK. To be sure, false sightings of bin Laden come in every day. There's no solid proof he's even alive. But privately, many terrorism experts think Uddin is on the right track. Another Afghan commander in Khowst, Kamal Khan Zadran, who has 600 troops working with the Americans, says he thinks bin Laden's men are trying to keep their leader safe inside Pakistan. "The local Al Qaeda network is active," he says. "They're working out their plans." Zadran is convinced they're out to protect an extremely important target.
If so, the Americans are determined to hit it. Inside Afghanistan, at the remote smuggler's crossing of Ghulam Khan, the local Afghan commander, Mohammed Yaqoob, sits in a tent beside a tray of hard candies and a small satellite telephone. The wireless setup is his connection to his American handler, a man identified only as Jim. Yaqoob says the Americans have been running missions into Pakistan for weeks now. "The Americans collect weapons and arrest many people from the Pakistan side and bring them back," says Jalal Khan, an Afghan allied with the Americans. "There were some important people, some commanders and some foot soldiers."
Pakistani officials hated to let the U.S. military operate on their soil. They ran out of excuses in late March, though, when American communications intercepts led to the capture of Abu Zubaydah, one of bin Laden's top lieutenants, at a safe house in the Pakistani city of Faisalabad, hundreds of miles from the Afghan border. Armed FBI and CIA agents accompanied elite Pakistani police on that raid and others that netted a total of 50 Qaeda fugitives. The arrests blindsided bin Laden's former backers at Pakistan's ISI intelligence agency--and mortified President Pervez Musharraf. After that, knowledgeable Pakistanis say, Musharraf decided he had no choice but to let the Americans in.
They jumped to work. On April 26, U.S. and Pakistani forces descended on a religious school in Miram Shah belonging to a prominent bin Laden supporter, Mullah Jalaluddin Haqqani. A caretaker at the school told NEWSWEEK how hundreds of troops scoured the 100-room complex, with support from helicopters hovering overhead. They found only a few women and children, and members of Haqqani's family who said many pro-bin Laden fighters had been there but had left before the raid. Pakistani troops are now scouring his tribal homeland, and last week American soldiers raided a farm near the Afghan border, where they uncovered a cache of weapons villagers say he buried there a few months ago.
As elusive as Haqqani is, bin Laden is likely to prove even tougher to catch. "He's kind of like Elvis," says Col. Wayland Parker, the U.S. military's liaison between coalition forces and the British-led international security force in Kabul. "He's here, he's dead, he's there, he's alive. The last time we felt sure about where, he was in Tora Bora. After that, he drops off the radar screen." In fact, some analysts now question how long the Qaeda leader was in the Afghan cave complex. Radio intercepts seemed to prove he was there late last year, but at least some of those transmissions now seem to have been faked.
U.S. forces aren't about to give up the search. Last October, as the war was just beginning, Haqqani scoffed at President George W. Bush's vow to take Afghanistan away from the terrorists and their friends. "The Americans are creatures of comfort," Haqqani bragged. "They will not be able to sustain the harsh conditions that await them." Now thousands of U.S. troops will not rest until Haqqani has eaten his words--and bin Laden has paid for his crimes.