After one of the latest U.S. Predator attacks in North Waziristan, a Taliban subcommander visited the site. He's seen the results of many airstrikes over the past year or two, but this one really impressed him. The missile didn't just hit the right house; it scored a direct hit on the very room where Mustafa al-Misri ("Mustafa the Egyptian") and several other Qaeda operatives were holed up. The hit was so accurate, the subcommander says, it's as if someone had tossed a GPS device against the wall. Unfortunately for others at the scene, the mud-and-stone house collapsed, killing several Afghans along with the foreign fighters. Nevertheless, the subcommander told NEWSWEEK, "We are stunned" by such precision.
Al Qaeda's hideouts in Pakistan's tribal areas aren't quite as safe as they used to be. After years in which they were suspected of shielding Osama bin Laden's lieutenants—or, at least, not pursuing them very vigorously—Pakistan's intelligence services have finally started helping the Americans track and kill the fugitive terrorists in the frontier belt. According to Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence agency, 11 of the top 20 "high-value targets" along the Afghan border have been eliminated in the past six months. And while the Americans blast the bad guys in the tribal areas, the Pakistanis have been confronting problems in their own ranks. Since September, 140 pro-Islamist officers have been mustered out of ISI, according to a senior diplomatic official in Washington, asking not to be named on such a sensitive topic.
Islamabad has good reasons to work with the Americans. For one thing, Washington is considering an aid package worth as much as $15 billion to Pakistan over the next 10 years. In the midst of that debate, Islamabad is trying to undo the harm to its international image from the ISI's alleged links to the November terrorist rampage in Mumbai. But beyond those details, Pakistanis finally seem to be figuring out that Al Qaeda and its friends are not merely America's problem. "We may be crazy in Pakistan, but [we're] not completely out of our minds," ISI chief Ahmed Shuja Pasha recently told the German magazine Der Spiegel. "We know full well that terror is our enemy, not India." Husain Haqqani, Pakistan's ambassador to the United States, confirms that Islamabad is working with the Americans. "Pakistan and the United States are partners in the effort against terrorism, and our broad-based effort includes sharing intelligence," he told NEWSWEEK last week.
Taliban sources say Islamabad is right to worry what Al Qaeda is up to. The group's No. 2 leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, wants to destabilize the "apostate" Pakistani government. The Egyptian-born doctor has been promoting fellow Egyptians and other allies to replace senior Qaeda members who have been killed or captured, Taliban sources say. Bin Laden is said to oppose Zawahiri's scheme, fearing blowback from Pakistan, but he hasn't shown up at planning meetings in years. (U.S. intelligence sources say they see no signs of a rift between the two leaders.)
The attacks are creating turmoil in the tribal areas. A witch-hunt against suspected spies has resulted in the deaths of at least a dozen people in North Waziristan, many of them by beheading. And Naqib Khan, a Taliban intelligence operative, says some Qaeda fighters and their jihadist friends from Pakistan have been relocating to quieter places in eastern Afghanistan. Even so, the Americans should postpone any plans for a victory party. "Reports that Al Qaeda is on the decline have been frequent in the past—and always inaccurate," says former CIA analyst Bruce Riedel, who advised the Obama transition team on Pakistan issues. But the Americans aren't giving up yet either.