ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Pakistani forces have mobilized in the tribal regions along the Afghan border, where al Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden and Taliban leader Mullah Omar are believed to be hiding.
Government sources told CNN the Pakistani army is ready to conduct a big operation against al Qaeda and Taliban elements in the Wana area.
Ahead of any possible operation, the sources said tribal leaders — meeting a midnight deadline — had turned over at least 32 wanted people to the Pakistani government, with at least 40 others still at large.
But Pakistan’s Information Minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmad on Monday downplayed the mobilization of forces.
“The deployment of troops does not mean that a big operation is in the offing,” Rashid told reporters in the capital, Islamabad.
“It is part of the commitment of the government to root out terrorism from the country.”
Rashid added that no U.S. troops are involved, saying Pakistan will conduct any operations, based on intelligence.
Crushing terror network
Last week, the U.S. commander in Afghanistan said Pakistan’s recent clampdown along the Afghan border could help crush the al Qaeda terrorist network.
Pakistani troops are destroying the homes of those who do not cooperate with them, Lt. Gen. David Barno told reporters Tuesday at the Pentagon during a video news conference from Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan.
Barno said the hunt for bin Laden remains a “very, very high priority” for U.S. troops in Afghanistan.
But he seemed to back off a previous statement that the coalition would capture bin Laden and Omar this year, saying “there are no certainties in the war-fighting business out here.”
“Fundamentally, there’s still unfinished business in this part of the world,” Barno said. “We’re making every effort here during the coming months to close those efforts out.”
‘Sand in hourglass running out’
An international force is in Afghanistan.
U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan are planning a spring offensive against Taliban and al Qaeda fighters remaining in the country.
The Taliban ruled much of Afghanistan from the mid-1990s until a coalition of U.S. and allied forces drove them from power in November 2001. The Taliban had given haven to al Qaeda before the September 11 attacks on New York and Washington.
Barno would not discuss specifics, but said “the sand in their hourglass is running out.”
Bin Laden and Omar are believed to have taken refuge in the mountainous tribal areas of northwestern Pakistan.
Barno said Pakistani troops have made “a very serious effort” to assert their authority in the tribal regions in recent months.
“The fact that they are now there, that they’ve got a presence, that they’re confronting the tribal elders, and they’re holding them accountable for activities in their areas of influence is a major step forward,” he said.
“And it’s something that we’re watching with great interest and with some cautious optimism it will have a positive effect.”
U.S. and Pakistani forces are operating on each side of the border in hopes of producing “a hammer-and-anvil approach” in which Pakistan would drive al Qaeda fighters toward U.S. and Afghan forces across the frontier.
Barno said U.S. troops have shifted tactics in order to counter smaller-scale attacks by Taliban and other forces.
The attacks have targeted peacekeepers, aid workers and civilians “because they are essentially powerless to confront the coalition out here.”
American units now will spend more time in the Afghan countryside and less in their bases, establishing ties with local leaders and the Afghan people.
“The units then ultimately get great depth of knowledge, understanding and much better intelligence access to the local people in those areas, by owning, as it were, those chunks of territory,” Barno said.
“That’s a fairly significant change in terms of our tactical approach out there on the ground.”
U.S. troops and British, New Zealand and German forces have set up “provincial reconstruction teams” to provide security for aid workers, he added.
A pilot “regional development zone” has been set up in Kandahar, once the Taliban’s base of support.