How Not To Capture Osama
BIN LADEN: A LOST CAUSE?
Almost six months after Osama's attacks on the US, and still there are no signs of the evasive Al Qaeda ringleader. As expected, America's most wanted fugitive has evaded his pursuers. Various rumors have placed him in Kashmir, Iran, Somalia and Chechnya, but so far no hard evidence has emerged regarding the whereabouts of the shadowy terrorist mastermind. The longer bin Laden remains on the lam, the more desperate the Bush administration becomes. Although the US is loath to admit it, the new focus on other parts of the world North Korea, the Philippines, Somalia, Georgia shows that the government is seeking to distract attention from its failure to capture Osama bin Laden.
And so, what was once the focal point of the "war on terror" has now been reduced to desiderata, a trivial yet irksome matter to be resolved at some undisclosed date in the future. Yet after six months with no signs of OBL, perhaps it's time for a new strategy especially considering how the chosen alternative looks like it will mire the US in even more messy, costly intervention across the globe. Swept up in the excitement of fighting the "war on terror," no one in Washington wants to ask the awkward questions like how the government is planning to pay for maintaining new military bases across the world, from the Philippines to Central Asia to the Caucasus, in addition to the already groaning infrastructure of American forces overseas. Being the world's self-appointed policeman is a tiring and cash-guzzling enterprise and detrimental to domestic prosperity. In trying to reinforce the walls, the castle itself crumbles. This will not become apparent for some years, but eventually the chronic overextension of military forces will make America go the way of all empires before it.
NEWS FLASH: BIN LADEN SPOTTED WITH ELVIS
Yet all hope may not be lost in the quest for Osama. A recent New York Times article ("US has clues that Bin Laden survives," 2/24/02), claims that Osama lives still in the very same mountainous region of southeastern Afghanistan from which he was supposedly flushed out. In a way, this is good news for the US government: it means that there is still a chance, however miniscule, to pluck a needle from the haystack. Quoting a senior American official who said, "we've probably gotten [i.e., killed] about a third of the core leadership," the Times plainly stated the reality of the situation: that capturing bin Laden is essential for Bush to maintain his current approval ratings.
The political risks of not catching bin Laden were obvious from the very start. They were, in fact, inherent in the Bush administration's simplistic "blame game" strategy. By reducing the complex web of interrelated causes behind September 11th to the evil machinations of one deranged terrorist mastermind, the administration blindly set course for its own future humiliation. True, bin Laden was indeed the ringleader and few if any Americans would deny that he must be brought to justice. But by oversimplifying the complex web of causes behind the phenomenon of Islamic terrorism, government leaders not only insulted their citizens' intelligence they also dug themselves into a hole. For, if bin Laden were indeed the exclusive source of so much evil, then anything less than his capture or death must be regarded as a failure. And this can only translate into a loss of faith among the average American in their government's ability to achieve its goals.
THE WHITE HOUSE GAMBLES
This reality, of course, was not lost on policymakers. Yet whether through overconfidence or sheer folly, they believed it would be possible to kill bin Laden early on. This did not happen, despite overwhelming firepower and the use of inordinate force. The government's mounting desperation at having nothing to show on the OBL front has manifested itself in a number of creative, and increasingly bellicose, ways: threats of war in Iraq and Somalia; the "evil axis" pronouncement; the dispatching of special forces to the Philippines (and now, Georgia).
Further, as has been noted by analysts, the thwarted quest to bring just punishment to Osama has been transferred to the personage of that hapless would-be warrior from Marin. No doubt, John Walker Lindh's trial will become an arena (in the ancient, gladiatorial sense of the word) for unleashing the collective anger of the American people. Yet however much the trial satisfies America's thirst for justice, it will not bring the country any closer to finding bin Laden. By all accounts, "Jihad Johnny" was a small fish indeed. But even if the US does catch the biggest fish, Osama bin Laden himself, then what? Netting bin Laden won't reduce the chances of future terrorism and if he goes out as a self-marketed martyr, it might even increase them.
Although these factors were predicted early on by sensible people, the US government took no heed. By predicating a military campaign on finding an elusive individual in the most inhospitable terrain in the world, the US guaranteed that the operation would be both open-ended and just in that Wild West, hunting-down-outlaws sort of way. But the main reason why catching Osama will not solve anything is that terrorism has wider causes and applications than any one individual. Simply put, even if this particular man didn't exist, others would have arisen to fill his niche.
In short, by attempting to place all of the guilt on bin Laden, the government shot itself in the foot. It invented a character to suit its purposes, whereas the reality of the situation was sufficiently menacing to not require an all-purpose scapegoat. To reverse the old adage, if we didn't invent him, he would have had to exist. The American people are intelligent enough to understand the complexity of the terrorist threat; they don't need to be pacified with a simplistic "Star Wars" analogy of good and evil. Yet this was the fateful choice that the Bush administration made, when it decided to pursue a slick and overglossed campaign of saving the world from Osama bin Vader.
MAKING THE BEST OF A BAD SITUATION
But let's forget about all that. Let's go along for the ride and say that OBL is still worth capturing, and that this can somehow be achieved. So what would be the best method of doing this?
We get some clues from the same New York Times article, which reveals:
"In interviews conducted in Washington and Afghanistan, a picture has emerged of a search hampered by inconclusive, and sometimes deliberately misleading, reports from Afghans, many of them eager to win American favor or a piece of the $25 million reward offer for bin Laden. In many villages destroyed by bombing, survivors have said al Qaeda leaders were never there or fled before US bombs and missiles struck. US officials have countered by saying that every attack had been mounted on the basis of the best intelligence available at the time, but Afghan villagers and local leaders say many attacks seem to have been carried out without any detectable US investigation on the ground or probe afterward to see who was killed."
If this is true, then we must assume that the bombing of Tora Bora (and other mountain enclaves) was nothing more than a chance for the Pentagon to unload heavy ordnance. After all, in order to buy new weapons, you need to use up the old ones first. Yet there's more.
The most striking thing here is the defensiveness of US officials, who state that " every attack had been mounted on the basis of the best intelligence available." Yet using intelligence is not so simple as hearing a rumor, and then dropping a 50-ton bomb; quick, critical analysis of the information is key. This is especially true when we consider that local Afghan warlords often have their own agendas. There have been frequent reports of the US blowing up the wrong convoy, or the wrong village, based on the malevolent "intelligence" of local leaders intent on liquidating their rivals. Will it help capture bin Laden for the US to become entangled in Afghanistan's endless tribal feuds?
LEARNING FROM THE REDCOATS
The other day I was leafing through a well-worn, remaindered paperback, one which chronicled the "greatest hits" of the British SAS (Special Air Service). Britain's special forces have long had a reputation for being tough, well-trained, and clever. One of the basic tenets of strategic diplomacy, which it seems the US has not appreciated, is that a result obtained without violence is far superior to one obtained with violence. The Brits who are accustomed to living with terrorism realize this, but their transatlantic friends apparently do not. The high-visibility military campaign in Afghanistan, heavy on firepower and "collateral damage," instilled rabid anti-Americanism in the Muslim world. It raised the ire of fanatics to such levels that Americans abroad for example, the late Daniel Pearl were put in grave danger. Prosecuting the war in this manner also compromised the ability of America to win the trust of locals, and no doubt also destroyed valuable evidence. If the hunt was really for Osama and his inner circle, then why would a massive military campaign succeed? Can the fly not easily evade the lumbering elephant?
There was an alternative to the bombing campaign, of course: a highly-secretive, low-visibility special forces assault. This is where even a dog-eared paperback about the SAS becomes enlightening.
For example, take the following summary of a covert operation against a suspected IRA weapons cache:
In the dead of night, the elite SAS team enters the small church in Northern Ireland where the IRA weapons are allegedly hidden. Sure enough, the team finds the guns, and stealthily removes them. Then, they bury the guns on some farmland a few miles up the road. Later in the week the Ulster constabulary, acting on a tip, discovers the buried weapons. The police win praise in the newspapers, the SAS role is kept secret, and the IRA knows that someone is on to them only they can't figure out who.
That, my friends, was a successful operation.
By contrast, the American operation in Afghanistan has been heavy-handed and bloody, long on firepower and short on results. By failing to capture bin Laden, the Bush administration has become increasingly vulnerable to criticism. The administration's bellicose reaction, declaring its intent to prosecute the "war on terror" on new fronts, is a worrying byproduct of this failure. That the war has so far been conducted in such a haphazard and overblown manner would seem to indicate that certain forces have something to gain from prolonging this impotent war strategy. In the long run, this strategy is not beneficial for the safety of the average American citizen nor for citizens of other countries. And it is not promising for any realistic hope of capturing Osama bin Laden.
Previous articles by Christopher Deliso on Antiwar.com
Christopher Deliso is a journalist and travel writer with special interest in current events in the areas of the former Byzantine Empire the Balkans, Greece, Turkey, and the Caucasus. Mr. Deliso holds a master's degree with honors in Byzantine Studies (from Oxford University), and has traveled widely in the region. His current long-term research projects include the Macedonia issue, the Cyprus problem, and the ethnography of Byzantine Georgia.
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