Originally Published 2004-02-24 10:18:13 Published on Feb 24, 2004
There has been an intensified hunt for Osama bin Laden and other surviving leaders of Al Qaeda on both sides of the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.
Intensified Hunt for bin Laden
There has been an intensified hunt for Osama bin Laden and other surviving leaders of Al Qaeda on both sides of the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.

US and Pakistani officials have taken care not to project the hunt as a joint operation lest there be protests against it in Pakistan, thereby adding to the difficulties of President General Pervez Musharraf. It is projected more as parallel operations mounted separately  by the Pakistani Army on the one side and the American and British troops on the other in close co-ordination in the territories under their respective control without any common command and control. However, the US and the British intelligence have been playing an important role in providing intelligence inputs to both sides. The intelligence inputs are based largely on electronic intercepts and some information gathered from trans-border travellers.

Taliban spokesmen continue to claim that bin Laden, Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri, his No.2, Mulla Mohammad Omar, the Amir of the Taliban, and Jalalludin Haqqani, the Taliban#146;s operational chief, are alive and active and have been operating from  pockets liberated by the Taliban in southern and eastern Afghanistan.In the past, American and Pakistani spokesmen were saying that bin Laden was most probably in the area adjoining the Pakistan-Afghanistan border in the Pashtun belt, without specifying whether he was in Afghan or Pakistani territory.

While the Pakistani spokesmen continue to maintain this stand, US spokesmen have been increasingly speaking of bin Laden hiding  in Pakistani territory. They are speaking as if they are quite confident of the correctness of their information. Whereas in the past, they were referring to the South Waziristan area of Pakistan#146;s Federally-Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) as the most likely place where bin Laden must be hiding, they are now talking of the possibility of his operating from the Pashtun majority villages of Balochistan . President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan and his military commanders have been saying since August last that Mulla Omar and other leaders of the Taliban have been operating from hide-outs in Balochistan and not in the FATA or the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP).

It was because of this that the two French journalists, who were arrested and detained recently  by the Pakistani authorities for some weeks on a charge of going to Quetta, the capital of Balochistan, without permission, had gone to the bordering areas of Balochistan to investigate the presence of the Taliban leaders there. The Pakistani authorities seized and destroyed their films after accusing them of paying money to local villagers for posing as members of the Taliban.

The US intelligence agencies have stepped up their electronic coverage of Balochistan in addition to their already heightened coverage of the NWFP and the FATA. It needs to be underlined that Khalid Sheikh Mohammad, the so-called operational chief of Al Qaeda, who was arrested in Rawalpindi in March last year, had fled from Karachi to Balochistan in September,2002, and from there moved to Rawalpindi.

The Americans have better chance of collecting human intelligence (HUMINT) about bin Laden and his associates if they are really in the Pashtun majority villages of Balochistan. While the Pashtuns and the Yemeni-Balochis, born of mixed Yemeni-Balochi marriages, are fiercely loyal to bin Laden , neither the Balochis, who resent the illegal migration of Afghan  and Pakistani Pashtuns into their homeland thereby reducing them to a minority in large pockets, nor the Shia Hazaras of Balochistan, who have not forgotten the massacre of their ethnic kin and kith in Afghanistan by the Taliban and Al Qaeda before 9/11, have much love for bin Laden and the other dregs of Al Qaeda and the Taliban.

Under US pressure, President Pervez Musharraf has deployed a brigade of Pakistani security forces, belonging to the Army and the para-military forces, in the South Waziristan area since October last to comb for the dregs of Al Qaeda and the Taliban. These operations have been unsuccessful so far. When bin Laden and his followers in Al Qaeda and other components of the International Islamic Front (IIF) escaped from the Tora Bora area of Afghanistan into Pakistan in the beginning of 2002, the Pakistani and Arab elements spread out to other parts of Pakistan and the elements from South-East Asia escaped to Bangladesh and from there made their way back to their respective countries, but the Chechens, including those of Arab origin,the Uighurs from Xinjiang and the Uzbecks preferred to take shelter in the FATA. Some of them had married local women even before 9/11 and hence had no difficulty in finding people who would protect them.

In the operations launched by the Pakistan Army since October last, less than a dozen Chechens and Uzbecks  and one Uighur were killed. Many of the Chechens crossed over to Iran via Balochistan and have made their way to Iraq. The Uzbecks, whose number is estimated at less than 50, have stayed put. It is not clear how many Arabs are still there, whether bin Laden is amongst them and where are they taking shelter. Since December, the Pakistan Army has been issuing one ultimatum after another to the local tribal leaders to surrender the foreigners taking shelter in their area as well as their tribesmen who have been supporting them. The tribal leaders have repeatedly defied these ultimatums. The latest of these ultimatums expired on February 20 without noticeable results.

Presuming that bin Laden and Al-Zawahiri are in these areas, the success of any American operations to get them would depend on the co-operation they receive  not only from the Pakistani military-intelligence establishment, but also from the Iranian authorities. The dregs could escape into other parts of Pakistan or into Iran across the Balochistan border. While the Iranian authorities have claimed in the past that they had been rounding up Al Qaeda elements found in their territory and handing them over to the authorities of their countries of origin, they have not been very co-operative with the US.

Cynics and detractors of President Bush have been attributing the intensified hunt for bin Laden to his anxiety  for a major operational success before the forthcoming Presidential elections. While one cannot rule out the possibility of electoral calculations playing a role in this, there are other more important considerations which are behind the intensified hunt for bin Laden.

Afghanistan is due to go to the polls in the middle of this year and in Iraq, the US has committed itself to handing over power and the responsibility for internal security to an indirectly elected/chosen  Iraqi Government by June 30. The internal security situation in Iraq continues to be as bad as ever and in Afghanistan too, there has been a resurgence in the activities of the Taliban and its associates from Al Qaeda and Gulbuddin Heckmatyar#146;s Hizb-e- Islami (HEI). Suicide terrorism has made its appearance for the first time in Afghanistan. Though the Taliban has been claiming the responsibility for them, it would appear that the Arab followers of bin Laden have been behind some of them.

While there is no definitive evidence of a common command and control co-ordinating the anti-US operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, there are some disturbing common features such as suicide terrorism, targeted attacks on locals collaborating with the Americans and operations directed against foreign non-combatants working for humanitarian relief organisations. The only major difference is that while the foreign terrorists and Iraqi resistance fighters in Iraq have been targeting the US troops too, there have been very few targeted attacks on US troops in Afghanistan. Clashes between US troops and the Taliban and Al Qaeda dregs, which have taken place, have been more accidental than deliberate. The Taliban and its associates continue to avoid frontal confrontations with the American troops.

The recent unearthing of the rogue operations of Pakistani nuclear scientists, with or without the complicity of the Pakistani military-intelligence establishment, has also added to the operational anxieties of the US, which is faced with two questions. How to ensure effective control over Pakistan#146;s scientific establishment in order to prevent their proliferating to Al Qaeda and other non-State actors? How to neutralise once and for all the dregs of the various jihadi terrorist groups still operating from Afghanistan and Pakistan? Unless and until they are totally neutralised, there would always be the danger of some of them managing to have access to weapons of mass destruction (WMD) through their sympathisers in Pakistan#146;s scientific community.

These considerations have made it all the more important and urgent for the US to pay renewed attention to  bin Laden and his associates and to capture or eliminate them before they can do more harm. One could notice an element of added urgency or even desperation  in the current operations. The US has convinced itself that the capture or elimination of bin Laden would facilitate the tasks faced by its forces in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Keeping in view the determination and resources which have been brought to bear on this operation, one should not be surprised if it succeeds in capturing or killing bin Laden, presuming that he is still alive.However, it is doubtful whether the end of bin Laden would be the end of the security challenges faced by the US or of the jihad being waged against the international community from the Afghan-Pakistan region. The world is destined to face and suffer  the irrationality of the jihadi terrorists for many more years to come till their supporters in Pakistan#146;s military-intelligence establishment and religious clergy are identified and weeded out.. (23-2-04)

(The writer is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai, and Distinguished Fellow and Convenor, Observer Research Foundation (ORF), Chennai Chapter. E-Mail: [email protected] )

* Views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Observer Research Foundation.
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