Correction to This Article
An incorrect date appeared in an earlier version of this article about the hunt for Osama bin Laden. The article should have said that several officers confirmed that the number of special operations troops in Afghanistan was reduced in March 2002.
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Bin Laden Trail 'Stone Cold'

U.S. soldiers leave for a forward military base in Naray in northern Afghanistan as the search for Osama bin Laden goes on.
U.S. soldiers leave for a forward military base in Naray in northern Afghanistan as the search for Osama bin Laden goes on. (By B.k. Bangash -- Associated Press)

By then, Pakistan was the United States' best bet for information after an infusion of funds from the U.S. intelligence community, particularly in the area of expensive NSA eavesdropping equipment.

"For technical intelligence ISI (Inter-Services Intelligence) works hand in hand with the NSA," a senior Pakistani intelligence official said. "The U.S. assistance in building Pakistan's capabilities for technical intelligence since 9/11 is superb."

Since early 2002, the United States has stationed a small number of personnel from the NSA and the CIA near where bin Laden may be hiding. They are embedded with counterterrorism units of the Pakistan army's elite Special Services Group, according to senior Pakistani intelligence officials.

The NSA and other specialists collect imagery and electronic intercepts that their CIA counterparts then share with the Pakistani units in the tribal areas and with the province of Baluchistan to the south.

But even with sophisticated technology, the local geography presents formidable obstacles. In a land of dead-end valleys, high peaks and winding ridge lines, it is easy to hide within the miles of caves and deep ravines, or to live unnoticed in mud-walled compounds barely distinguishable from the surrounding terrain.

The Afghan-Pakistan border is about 1,500 miles. Pakistan deploys 70,000 troops there. Its army had never entered the area until October 2001, more than a half century after Pakistan's founding.

Pakistani Sources Lost

A Muslim country where many consider bin Laden a hero, Pakistan has grown increasingly reluctant to help the U.S. search. The army lost its best source of intelligence in 2004, after it began raids inside the tribal areas. Scouts with blood ties to the tribes ceased sharing information for fear of retaliation.

They had good reason. At least 23 senior anti-Taliban tribesmen have been assassinated in South and North Waziristan since May 2005. "Al-Qaeda footprints were found everywhere," Interior Minister Sherpao said in a recent interview. "They kidnapped and chopped off heads of at least seven of these pro-government tribesmen."

Pakistani and U.S. counterterrorism and military officials admit that Pakistan has now all but stopped looking for bin Laden. "The dirty little secret is, they have nothing, no operations, without the Paks," one former counterterrorism officer said.

Last week, Pakistan announced a truce with the Taliban that calls on the insurgent Afghan group to end armed attacks inside Pakistan and to stop crossing into Afghanistan to fight the government and international troops. The agreement also requires foreign militants to leave the tribal area of North Waziristan or take up a peaceable life there.

In Afghanistan, the hunt for bin Laden has been upstaged by the reemergence of the Taliban and al-Qaeda, and by Afghan infighting for control of territory and opium poppy cropland.

Lt. Gen. John R. Vines, who commanded U.S. troops in Afghanistan in 2003, said he thinks bin Laden kept close to the border, not wandering far into either country. That belief is still current among military and intelligence analysts.

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