The easiest way for National Geographic photographer Reza and me to enter Pakistan is simply to follow that trail. Bad idea, says Shah, the machine gunner; he wasn't just firing at shadows. The night before we arrived, some bad guys, probably Taliban with a few al Qaeda thrown in, had attacked the Afghan border police nearby with rockets and gunfire. The Taliban are probably still watching, and the Afghan commander in charge of our safety, Sher Ghulam, waits until nightfall before he moves us out of camp, without flashlights, to a safe house in a nearby mountain village. "Our enemies come from Pakistan," Sher Ghulam says. It is a refrain we would hear time and again, wherever we traveled in Afghanistan.
Even if Reza and I managed to cross the Pakistan border, we would probably be in just as much danger on the other side. Most of Pakistan's North-West Frontier Province, along the border with Afghanistan, is semiautonomous tribal land. In the 19th century the British, after many bloody campaigns to pacify the Pashtun tribes there, ended up leaving them alone, to serve as a buffer zone between the wilds of Afghanistan and the British colony of India. After Pakistan was founded in 1947, successive Pakistani governments also thought it wise to leave the tribes ungoverned—at least before 9/11.
The Pashtun may be the most ungovernable people on Earth. They are divided into dozens of tribes and hundreds of clans, which are usually at war with each other. The presence of an invader (even a pair of journalists from National Geographic) unites the tribesmen just long enough to drive out the interlopers. Then they go back to shooting at each other. The only time the Pashtun are at peace with themselves, it is said, is when they are at war.
In the tribal areas, the typical Pashtun home is built like a fortress, with high watchtowers and 20-foot (6-meter) walls. And no self-respecting Pashtun is without his personal armory. A powerful household might have an antiaircraft gun mounted in the watchtower, a mortar or two, a .50-caliber machine gun, a dozen or so AK-47s, and a stack of rocket-propelled grenades. With all this firepower, a spat between neighbors often turns into a pitched battle.
What saves the Pashtun from mutual annihilation is a tribal council of elders known as a jirga. Chosen by their respective clans, these sages are the supreme interpreters of Pashtunwali, and their collective judgments on land disputes, blood vendettas, and the fine points of sanctuary are final and binding. It's a democratic system because every Pashtun refuses to accept anyone but the jirga as his superior.
In the end Reza and I decide to seek official permission to visit the tribal areas in Pakistan, rather than just walk across the border. We travel to Peshawar and present ourselves to the local secretary for security, Brig. Mahmood Shah, a sad-eyed man with a soft voice and a burgundy silk scarf tucked rakishly into his vest pocket.
Brigadier Shah is a Pashtun himself, from the Yusufzai tribe, and it is important to note, he says, that not all Pashtun are terrorists and killers. They make fine soldiers, doctors, sea captains, poets, truck drivers, and dashing movie stars whose fame extends throughout Asia. They are men of their word, the brigadier says, and you can go as far as Calcutta and find Pashtun moneylenders whose informal system of banking relies entirely on trust. The brigadier has an impressive array of four colored telephones on his desk, but it is his cell phone that rings, to the jaunty tune of "The Hokey Pokey."
"Hello?" the brigadier answers. He listens and then says: "This man must be eliminated. Use the element of surprise. A night attack. If he gets away, it will be a catastrophe."
His voice is so bland and weary that he might be ordering up a supply of paper clips, not the death of a tribal troublemaker. "Now," he says, turning to us, "what can I do for you?" We explain that we need travel permits and an introduction to the Pakistani government representatives, called political agents, in each tribal district. In their colonial-era bungalows with English rose gardens, the political agents deal with the tribal elders, rewarding them with money, roads, and jobs if they behave. And if they don't, the agents punish the tribesmen with collective fines, arrests, and by occasionally leveling their houses with a charge of dynamite. A final option available to the agents was the brigadier's deadly command: Eliminate the man.
The repercussions of such an order, of course, are hard to predict. In March the Pakistani Army, under pressure from Washington, launched an operation in the mountains southwest of here, a Pashtun tribal region called Waziristan, to clean out hundreds of foreign al Qaeda fighters (known hereabouts as simply the "Arabs"), who were taking advantage of nanawateh.
At one point it was thought that bin Laden and his second-in-command, Ayman al-Zawahiri, were hiding near the town of Wana, but these reports later proved false. When we arrived a few weeks into the fighting, the Pakistani Army's offensive wasn't going well, and it had taken dozens of casualties. Convoys were ambushed. Garrisons came under rocket attack, and a dozen Pakistani soldiers who had fled into a mosque were dragged out by al Qaeda fighters and slaughtered.
With Waziristan in flames, Brigadier Shah wants us out of the crossfire. So Reza and I set out instead for Kurram, a long river valley facing Tora Bora that is bounded on one side by snowy mountains.
Guiding us is Rahimullah Yusufzai, a scholarly frontiersman with a white beard and owlish glasses who is the voice of BBC Radio in these parts and the doyen of Pashtun journalists. He had interviewed bin Laden twice and the Taliban chief, Mullah Mohammad Omar, several times, and knows the physical and cultural contours of Bin Ladenstan as well as any man alive. (He had also helped National Geographic track down Sharbat Gula, whose haunting green eyes were familiar to readers all over the world; see "Found," in the April 2002 issue.) And then we have our six bodyguards, scruffy frontier militiamen whose AK-47s often seem to be nonchalantly aimed at us. For our own protection, of course.