Originally Published 2004-10-26 05:22:01 Published on Oct 26, 2004
In his election campaign, Senator John Kerry, the Democratic candidate, has been blaming President George Bush for the failure to capture or kill Osama bin Laden during the battle at Tora Bora in Afghanistan towards the end of 2001.
Kerry, Bush and bin Laden
In his election campaign, Senator John Kerry, the Democratic candidate, has been blaming President George Bush for the failure to capture or kill Osama bin Laden during the battle at Tora Bora in Afghanistan towards the end of 2001. 

According to Kerry, the US failure was due to the fact that instead of using US troops in the battle, Bush outsourced the job of getting bin Laden to the Afghan warlords, who let bin Laden escape. 

Kerry's claims are partly true and partly incorrect. They are true to the extent that the US military did use Afghan warlords and Pakistani and Afghan narcotics barons, who know the topography of the Tora Bora area like the palm of their hands, to help it in its battle against Al Qaeda. The US narcotics control authorities were asked by the Pentagon not to take any action against the narcotics barons till bin Laden was caught and some Pakistani narcotics barons arrested before 9/11 under US pressure and jailed in Pakistan were got released by the Pentagon for being used in Tora Bora. I had referred to this many times in my past articles. 

Kerry's claims are incorrect in the sense that contrary to what he has been stating, the command and control of the Tora Bora operations remained in the hands of the US military and a large number of US troops and aircraft participated in the battle and suffered casualties. However, the US troops did not raid the caves. They made the Afghans do it. They avoided a frontal confrontation with Al Qaeda. 

Before the start of the US-led invasion of Iraq last year and coinciding with the end of the fasting period, bin Laden had issued a detailed message to the Iraqi people advising them as to how they should confront the Americans. In his message, which was broadcast by Al Jazeera on February 11, 2003, he described how Al Qaeda under his leadership had fought the Americans at Tora Bora and advised the Iraqis to emulate their example. Annexed are extracts from an article on the message written by me on March 30, 2003. Presuming what bin Laden had stated is correct, a perusal of his message would show that the US military played an active role in the Tora Bora battle and that Kerry's contention is wrong. However, bin Laden did refer to the role of the Afghan warlords whom he described as the "forces of the hypocrites, whom they prodded to fight us for 15 days non-stop." 

As mentioned by me on many occasions in the past, the Tora Bora operation failed due to two reasons. Firstly, the warlords and the narcotics barons played a double game. While ostensibly helping the US forces, they kept bin Laden and his fighters informed of the US military movements. Secondly, Pakistan on which too the US depended for sealing off its border with Afghanistan to prevent the escape of bin Laden and other jihadi terrorists into Pakistani territory, quietly let them pass. 

In fact, bin Laden, who was incapacitated by a sharpnel injury at Tora Bora, was shifted to the Binori madrasa in Karachi, where he was under treatment till August,2002. Since then, he has disappeared. He was keeping in touch with his followers through video and audio messages till April, 2004. Since then, he has been observing even electronic silence. 

He used to circulate at least three messages every year to his followers--on the anniversary of 9/11 to pay homage to the terrorists who participated in the terrorist strikes in US territory; before the beginning of the Ramadan fasting period and at the end of the fasting period. This year, he did not issue any message coinciding with 9/11. Instead, there was a message from Ayman al-Zawahiri, his No. 2. Nor has there been a message before the start of the fasting period. 

The continuing silence of bin Laden could be due to one of the following reasons:

  • He is dead. Reliable Shia sources in Pakistan believe that there is a greater possibility of his being dead than alive. Though their arguments are strong, I am disinclined, for the present, to believe them because if he is really dead the news would have spread like wild fire in the tribal areas of Pakistan. He is literally worshipped there and his burial site, if in tribal territory, would have become a place of pilgrimage. The Sunni tribals insist he must be alive though none of them claims to have seen him. 

  • He is observing electronic silence for his own physical security. 

  • He has been sidelined by his followers and has no longer any de facto or de jure control over Al Qaeda or the International Islamic Front (IIF) formed by him in February,1998. The increasing audibility of al-Zawahiri indicate the possibility of his playing the leadership role at least in the Pakistan-Afghanistan region, though not in Iraq. I have been writing since April 2003, that bin Laden is no longer in day-to-day control of the IIF. This is now being exercised by Pakistan's Lashkar-e-Toiba (LET), which has been in the forefront of recruiting volunteers and collecting funds for the jihad in Iraq. 

If bin Laden is still alive, where will he be? In the past, US military officials were saying that he ought to be in the tribal areas on both sides of the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. Now they are increasingly saying that he is most probably in Balochistan--possibly in the Pashtun majority areas of Balochistan. If he goes into the Baloch majority areas, the Baloch people, though Sunnis, and the Shia Hazaras would hunt him. 

In my past articles, I have been arguing as to why it was unlikely that he would take shelter in the tribal areas near the Afghanistan border. The most important argument was that American troops were right across the border in Afghan territory and if they came to know of bin Laden's presence in the adjoining Pakistani territory, they would make a foray into Pakistan with or without the permission of Gen.Pervez Musharraf and kill or whisk him out. 

Shia sources in Pakistan say that if he is alive there is a greater likelihood of his being in Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir (POK) than in the tribal areas near the Afghan border. The POK is Pakistan's Falluja, a stronghold of diehard Sunni elements. And, it is outside the easy reach of the American troops. 


"We are following with great interest and extreme concern the crusaders' preparations for war to occupy a former capital of Islam, loot Muslims' wealth, and install an agent government, which would be a satellite for its masters in Washington and Tel Aviv, just like all the other treasonous and agent Arab governments. 

"We realized from our defence and fighting against the American enemy that, in combat, they mainly depend on psychological warfare. This is in light of the huge media machine they have. They also depend on massive air strikes so as to conceal their most prominent point of weakness, which is the fear, cowardliness, and the absence of combat spirit among US soldiers. 

"We also realized that one of the most effective and available methods of rendering the air force of the crusader enemy ineffective is by setting up roofed and disguised trenches in large numbers. 

"I had referred to that in a previous statement during the Tora Bora battle last year. We were about 300 mujahideen. We dug 100 trenches that were spread in an area that does not exceed one square mile, one trench for every three brothers, so as to avoid the huge human losses resulting from the bombardment. Since the first hour of the US campaign on 20 Rajab 1422, corresponding to 7 October 2001, our centres were exposed to a concentrated bombardment. And this bombardment continued until mid-Ramadan. On 17 Ramadan, a very fierce bombardment began, particularly after the US command was certain that some of al-Qaeda leaders were still in Tora Bora, including the humble servant to God and the brother mujahid Dr Ayman al-Zawahiri.The bombardment was round-the-clock and the warplanes continued to fly over us day and night. 

"The US Pentagon, together with its allies, worked full time on blowing up and destroying this small spot, as well as on removing it entirely. Planes poured their lava on us, particularly after accomplishing their main missions in Afghanistan. The US forces attacked us with smart bombs, bombs that weigh thousands of pounds, cluster bombs, and bunker busters. Bombers, like the B-52, used to fly over head for more than two hours and drop between 20 to 30 bombs at a time. The modified C-130 aircraft kept carpet-bombing us at night, using modern types of bombs. The US forces dared not break into our positions, despite the unprecedented massive bombing and terrible propaganda targeting this completely besieged small area. 

"This is in addition to the forces of hypocrites, whom they prodded to fight us for 15 days non-stop. Every time the latter attacked us, we forced them out of our area carrying their dead and wounded. 

'To sum it up, the battle resulted in the complete failure of the international alliance of evil, with all its forces, a small number of mujahideen - 300 mujahideen hunkered down in trenches spread over an area of one square mile under a temperature of -10 degrees Celsius. The battle resulted in the injury of 6% of personnel - we hope God will accept them as martyrs - and the damage of two percent of the trenches, praise be to God. 

"If all the world forces of evil could not achieve their goals on a one square mile of area against a small number of mujahideen with very limited capabilities, how can these evil forces triumph over the Muslim world? This is impossible, God willing, if people adhere to their religion and insist on jihad for its sake. 

"O mujahideen brothers in Iraq, do not be afraid of what the United States is propagating in terms of their lies about their power and their smart, laser-guided missiles. The smart bombs will have no effect worth mentioning in the hills and in the trenches, on plains, and in forests. They must have apparent targets. The well-camouflaged trenches and targets will not be reached by either the smart or the stupid missiles. There will only be haphazard strikes that dissipate the enemy ammunition and waste its money. Dig many trenches. 

"The Umar, may God be pleased with him, stated: "Take the ground as a shield because this will ensure the exhaustion of all the stored enemy missiles within months. "Their daily production is too little and can be dealt with, God willing. 

'We also recommend luring the enemy forces into a protracted, close, and exhausting fight, using the camouflaged defensive positions in plains, farms, mountains, and cities. The enemy fears city and street wars most, a war in which the enemy expects grave human losses. 

"We stress the importance of the martyrdom operations against the enemy - operations that inflicted harm on the United States and Israel that have been unprecedented in their history, thanks to Almighty God. 

"Needless to say, this crusade war is primarily targeted against the people of Islam. Regardless of the removal or the survival of the socialist party or Saddam, Muslims in general and the Iraqis in particular must brace themselves for jihad against this unjust campaign and acquire ammunition and weapons. There will be no harm if the interests of Muslims converge with the interests of the socialists in the fight against the crusaders, despite our belief in the infidelity of socialists. 

"The fighting, which is waging and which will be waged these days, is very much like the fighting of Muslims against the Byzantine in the past. And the convergence of interests is not detrimental. The Muslims' fighting against the Byzantine converged with the interests of the Persians. And this was not detrimental to the companions of the prophet. 

"Before concluding, we reiterate the importance of high morale and caution against false rumours, defeatism, uncertainty, and discouragement.The prophet said: "Bring good omens and do not discourage people." During the Al-Yarmuk Battle, a man told Khalid bin-al-Walid : "The Byzantine soldiers are too many and the Muslims are few." 

So, Khalid told him: "Shame on you. Armies do not triumph with large numbers but are defeated if the spirit of defeatism prevails." 

Thousands of copies of this message have been got made in the Binori madrasa of Karachi and in the Akora Khattak madrasa of Peshawar in Pakistan and sent to Iraq via Jordan for distribution amongst the Iraqi people and soldiers to counteract the effect of the anti-Saddam Hussein pamphlets being disseminated by the coalition forces. 

In the sermons delivered in many mosques of Pakistan after the Friday prayers on March 28,2003, God and bin Laden were thanked for going to the help of the Iraqi people in their hour of trial. The sandstorms, which swept across the deserts from March 25 slowing down the advance of the coalition troops towards Baghdad, were described by the Mullas as sent by God to protect the Iraqi people and to teach the Americans a lesson. The credit for the resistance put up by the Iraqi soldiers was attributed to the inspiring example of bin Laden and his message to the Iraqi people. Appeals were also made to the Shias of Iraq not to fall a prey to what was described as the Anglo-American machinations to create a split between the Shias and the Sunnis and use the former against the latter.

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

Courtesy: South Asia Analysis Group, New Delhi, Paper No. 1149, October 25, 2004.

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

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