It may be only a matter of time before Osama bin Laden is found, and it wouldn‘t surprise me if he turns out to have been hiding in Pakistan, a longtime supporter of the Taliban. Other strong possibilities: Somalia, Chechnya and Indonesia.

Pakistan’s 1,500-mile border with Afghanistan, a porous boundary virtually unguarded until last week, has fostered all kinds of illegal trade between the two countries. The border is known as the Durand Line, named after a British colonial officer who drew the lines during British rule, dividing the Pashtuns in Afghanistan from those in Pakistan. This demarcation provoked tension on the question of Pashtun autonomy until September 1996, when the Taliban came to power.

On the Pakistani side, tribal agencies have virtual autonomy. The tribal elders‘ councils are not answerable to the central government of Pakistan in most matters, including law and order, trade and taxation. Many of the unruly tribal Pashtun people have significant sympathy with the Taliban movement. In the early days of the war, some 20,000 armed Pashtuns went to Afghanistan to fight what they called a holy war alongside the Taliban against the U.S.-led coalition.

In these bin Laden–friendly tribal areas, the major source of income is the manufacturing and smuggling of drugs, weapons and electronics. It is widely believed that bin Laden entered these areas as anti-Taliban forces began their push to capture his last stronghold in the Tora Bora Mountains bordering Pakistan. Since last week’s attack on Tora Bora, the presumed hideout of bin Laden and al Qaeda fighters, hundreds of Arab-origin Taliban have been arrested by Pakistani authorities as they tried to enter Pakistan. Many were injured and desperately in need of medical help.

We are seeing interesting developments in this country as the U.S. puts pressure on anyone who might have information on bin Laden‘s whereabouts. Last Thursday, for example, a judge in Karachi handed down a seven-year prison term to one of Pakistan’s top drug barons, Haji Ayub Afridi, a Pashtun, who has significant influence in tribal areas of Pakistan. He‘s a familiar name in international drug-enforcement circles. He was convicted of attempting to smuggle about 300 kilograms of cannabis to the U.S. in the early 1990s. Within hours of his sentencing, a car with diplomatic plates took him from his prison to the airport, where he was flown to Khyber Agency, a semi-autonomous Pashtun tribal area. It is widely believed in Pakistan that Haji Ayub Afridi was released from jail at the request of U.S. authorities who brokered a deal with him earlier for his help in finding bin Laden.

Pakistan’s culture and strict religion are sympathetic to bin Laden. The country has many religious schools, which have long been recruiting grounds for extremist religious groups. The Taliban, which literally means ”religious students,“ were the product of these seminaries back in the 1980s and early 1990s. Students get free lodging and board, take-home pay, and, in certain cases, military training. Most of these seminaries are of the Wahhabi sect, the same Islamic sect that claims bin Laden and the Taliban. It is the most rigid, puritan and jihad-advocating sect. It is no secret that al Qaeda‘s extensive network in Pakistan includes these seminaries and radical Islamic groups.

Most of these schools rely on foreign donations, but the Pakistani government has never demanded their names or even bothered to establish who runs them. There are thousands of these seminaries, enrolling hundreds of thousands of students. These religious institutes have become somewhat like private fiefdoms, akin to autonomous tribal areas.

For political observers in Pakistan, one possibility is that bin Laden may get safe haven in these seminaries en route to some other country via a sea course. Last week, U.S. naval ships increased surveillance of waters in case bin Laden tried to make a break for it on the seas.

If the hunt for bin Laden expands to Pakistan’s tribal areas and religious seminaries, the U.S.-led coalition can count on a fight. This is fervent pro-Taliban and Osama-friendly turf. Such an invasion, beyond the low-key secret forces already in Pakistan, would put great pressure on the already divided government of President General Pervez Musharraf. If and when this hunt begins in earnest, I suspect it will turn out to be more devastating than the war in Afghanistan.

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