Where Bin Laden can still roam free

Reporting from the tribal areas of Pakistan, Shiv Malik finds that opium is openly traded, gunshops

Aktar Gul's associate puts the opium away and, unscrewing a plastic tub, brings out a lump of hash the size of a child's fist. He shoves it close to my nose, urging me to smell. Even through my blocked nose that musty, spicy odour is unmistakably strong. Apparently, it's the "best in the world".

I am sitting on the floor of Aktar's small, dusty shack on the Khyber Pass road a few miles outside Peshawar. I ask Aktar if the tribal areas will always be free from the central government of Pakistan. His stinking-drunk brother interrupts again, barking the few words of English he knows straight into my ear: "Free. Yes. Always free." He thumps his chest for extra effect. Aktar picks up an empty bottle and threatens to hit him. I edge out from between them and head for the door as Aktar, after further words with his brother, picks up a glass and smashes it over his head, sending shards flying across the floor.

The town of Jamrud serves its narcotics freely. As you leave Peshawar city limits, a hundred metres on from the "No foreigners allowed" sign, shopfront after shopfront is adorned with little brass weighing scales - evidently there to ensure fair dealing.

The town is part of the Khyber Agency area, one of seven areas along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border that make up the biggest autonomous tribal region in the world. It is here that the United States searches for Osama Bin Laden. An advert in the local Urdu daily Mashriq offers millions of dollars for information leading to the arrest of Bin Laden and other Qaeda members. But the whole of the Khyber Agency remains completely outside Pakistani law, and Pakistani police are not allowed in the area.

Herded by my translator into the next shop, where posters of Bollywood girls adorn the back wall and WWF wrestlers are battling it out on the television, I ask Aktar my question again: "Will the tribal areas always be free?" He replies: "This area will always be free. My father and his father before him were doing this and so this area will always be tribal."

He tells me that he makes 5,000 rupees a month (£50) but he can make up to 100,000 rupees (£1,000) in peak season. This year the supply of opium coming from Afghanistan has been the biggest he's ever seen. After it arrives in Jamrud most of it will be sent into mainland Pakistan and from there, abroad.

Yet only 100 metres away, dealing narcotics could land you with a death sentence. These two entirely different legal and political set-ups exist within the same country. Perhaps this helps to explain why the dictator of Pakistan, President Pervez Musharraf, told CNN in December that the trail for Osama Bin Laden had gone cold. "We don't know where he is. He might be anywhere."

From the outside, it appears that Pakistan is doing all it can to combat terrorism. It has tens of thousands of troops on its 2,430km border with Afghanistan. But they are not in the tribal areas themselves, the very places where al-Qaeda and Taliban members are taking refuge. In fact, six out of the seven tribal agencies have not hosted any substantial military presence since 9/11. Last July, for the first time since the creation of Pakistan, the army made minor incursions into the Tirah Valley in the Khyber tribal region, the Shawal Valley in North Waziristan, and the Mohmand Agency. But it is only in South Waziristan that the Pakistani military has properly faced down militants, mainly Uzbeks and Tajiks, not the indigenous Pashtun type. Even there, the military has been forced to remove its checkpoints to keep on good terms with tribesmen.

Darra Adam Khel, an hour and a half's drive south from Jamrud, is famous for two things: its bright orange jalabi - sweetmeats, which are piled high along the single road that runs through the place; and its ability to replicate any gun in the world within ten days. Foreigners are generally not allowed in the area, and then only with an armed escort. So when Aktar Khan notices that I can't speak Pashtun and I don't have a permit, he is not pleased.

Aktar Khan is the owner of one of the many gunshops that line the main road. Inside, other gun dealers have gathered to drink tea and lounge around. Khan has spread himself out on a charpoy. Above him, the wall is covered with more than a dozen AK-47s, while the back wall is covered with M-16 rifles. "We cannot guarantee your safety. You must leave this place immediately," he says in good, mildly accented English. Then, showing true Pashtun hospitality, he offers me a cuppa. I take the chance to ask his views about the Pakistani government's actions in South Waziristan, which is about 250km south-west of Darra.

"You are from London, you? So if something happens in London you are aggrieved, right? So the same is for us," he says. And does he think the area will ever be brought under government control? "We don't want these Arab pupils here [a reference to the Taliban]. We don't want police here, no one. We are happy." When I leave, I almost run into a kid carrying three newly minted shotguns on his shoulder.

The political set-up in the tribal areas dates back to the colonial era, when the British needed friends among the hostile crowd. The Raj appointed tribal elders or maliks - roughly 5,000 for each of the seven tribal areas - to keep the peace and remain loyal, in return for certain privileges. They were overseen by political agents. Roughly the same system exists today. The only significant change is that, in 1997, universal suffrage was granted to the four million inhabitants of the seven agencies. Before that, only maliks were allowed to vote.

"A very few selected group of maliks," says Khan, "are the beneficiaries of all the funds and the incentives, but the general population of the tribal area, they are not getting anything including education, including health. [It is] very much corrupted." Mainstream politicians are not allowed into the area to discuss politics. This, says Khan, has led to wide-scale ignorance and the dominance of religious fundamentalism.

The central government has not been able to integrate the tribal areas into its normal federal structure in 57 years. According to Khan, this is largely because the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan, also known as the Durand Line, has always been disputed territory, and the Pashtun tribes have used this to their political advantage over the years. "You know that if Afghanistan is not giving them much, so then they would say that we are with Pakistan. And if Pakistan is browbeating them, they would say, oh, we have Afghanistan on our side."

Though the Pakistani military can enter the tribal areas, the effect is small. The arrests and death tallies may go up but the cities of Quetta and Peshawar are openly used by ex-Taliban to organise attacks, and the rise to power in these areas of the MMA - an orthodox religious alliance - has given militants more confidence. So while George W Bush praises the Pakistani military for being "incredibly active and very brave", the US army in Afghanistan says that 90 per cent of the attacks it faces originate in Pakistan.

The US is trying to address the problem. The CIA now has covert bases across the tribal areas and, according to sources in the Pakistani military, has also recruited roughly 1,000 local agents. But many are sceptical that the Pakistani government, facing many other domestic problems, really wants the added burden of controlling the tribal areas. In recent weeks, the country has been enveloped in violence between Sunnis and Shias, and last month tribal gunmen in the state of Baluchistan, complaining of Punjabi and central government dominance, damaged gas pipelines, cutting off supplies to cities across the country for several days.

To get to Dera Bugti, I had to be smuggled past Pakistani army checkposts manned with tanks and armoured vehicles. There, the tribal chief, Nawab Akbar Bugti, explained that unless the army abandons its plans to remove 15,000 inhabitants from around the Sui gas plant, and justice is brought to bear for the alleged gang rape of a doctor by army personnel, violence seems certain to break out. Indeed, already women and children have been evacuated from the area and armed men have flooded into the town in preparation for conflict.

So it is not surprising that Musharraf says the trail for Bin Laden has gone cold. And one has to ask: what is the point of the US spending $1bn a month on hunting down ex-Taliban and Qaeda members in Afghanistan when, just over the border, they are left free and untouched? Until Pakistan reclaims its no man's land, the hunt for Bin Laden and his senior Qaeda operatives will continue to look like a waste of time and money.