Asia Times Online has learned from tribal-connected sources in Peshawar in Pakistan that Osama bin Laden is believed to have left southeastern Afghanistan late last week for South Waziristan in Pakistan. According to the sources, and as has been reported in sections of the Pakistani Urdu Press, bin Laden is said to be under the protection of concentric rings formed by dozens of al-Qaeda fighters and more than 1,200 Taliban – all easily blended in as local Pashtun tribals.
This means that bin Laden and his entourage were previously hiding in Paktika province in Afghanistan, and may have crossed to South Waziristan via the Khand pass – in the easternmost flank of the rugged Toba Kakar mountain range, where the weather is unforgiving and the desolation extreme: the nearest town is Wana, in the Pakistani tribal area of South Waziristan.
This information, if confirmed, also contradicts reports of a previous bin Laden sighting, already reported in Asia Times Online, according to which the fugitives – in much smaller number – were placed further south, between the tiny villages of Khanozai and Murgha Faqirzai, in Balochistan province. So bin Laden was not in Kunar province in Afghanistan or in Pakistani Balochistan, but in an Afghan province, Paktika, where every day there are clashes between Taliban and US forces.
The Peshawar sources confirm numerous local reports that bin Laden and his close entourage have come practically face-to-face with US patrols on several occasions in the past few weeks in Paktika – so they had to find a safer refuge.
But it could be a case of out of the frying pan into the fire. US Commando 121, headed by General William Boykin, with input from the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), is preparing to pounce. According to the ISI version currently circulating in Peshawar, the bin Laden group was located through an intercepted satellite phone call. Al-Qaeda has not used satphones in the Pak-Afghan border since December 2001, but Taliban commanders still frequently do.
What the ISI rumor mill is actually disseminating in the axis of Islamabad-Peshawar is that now they seem to know exactly where bin Laden and his group of fugitives are hiding. The ISI has even laid out the overall strategy: apply maximum pressure on Pashtun tribals in the Wana area, squeeze the fugitives out of access to food, water and crucial supplies, and then attack them en masse by about mid-March.
Pashtun ISI operatives are supposed to be blending in with the tribals to gather local intelligence before the final assault. The ISI-concocted endgame would be to capture bin Laden inside Pakistani territory, and then move him to Afghanistan – where the big news would be announced by Commando 121, or by Afghan President Hamid Karzai, or by both.
Pakistani Foreign Office spokesman Masood Khan has admitted on the record that “a special operation” will soon begin in Wana to capture al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters. But he has vehemently denied that at least 11,000 US troops and Special Forces will be fighting along with the Pakistani army. “If they come, they will remain on the other side of the border in Afghanistan and only Pakistani troops will take part in the ‘special operation’ on our side.” Pakistan has already deployed more than 70,000 troops to the Pak-Afghan border, and more are planned.
Independent sources in Peshawar tell Asia Times Online that the whole arrangement may be part of a secret deal discussed face-to-face last week between US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and President General Pervez Musharraf. The Pakistanis do the hard work to capture bin Laden in the volatile, tribal Pakistani side – helping Commando 121 and other Special Forces. But the big news will come from Afghanistan. Understandably, the director general of Inter-Services Public Relations, Major-General Shaukat Sultan, vehemently denied on Pakistani TV any suggestion of a deal.
Interior Minister Syed Saleh Hayat admits that a huge operation is already going on in Wana, saying: “We have secured our borders as far as it is possible. On the other side of the border, in Afghanistan … US government and coalition forces and even NATO [North Atlantic Treaty Organization] are increasing their forces.” But the interior minister regards the tribal whereabouts of bin Laden as “mere speculation … According to intelligence reports and our own assessment, it seems that Osama and his chief lieutenant may be present in this area. But this is not the final word.”
Which begs the question: Does anybody really know where Osama is hiding? As to the final word, the whole point is to determine when the Pentagon and the White House want bin Laden captured: now – eight months before the US presidential election – or in October, just before the polls.