“And again, I don’t know where he is. I – I’ll repeat what I said. I truly am not that concerned about him.” – President George W Bush, March 13, 2002
“Gosh, I don’t think I ever said I’m not worried about Osama bin Laden. That’s kind of one of those exaggerations.” – President Bush, October 13
“Now my opponent is throwing out the wild claim that he knows where bin Laden was in the fall of 2001 and that our military passed up the chance to get him in Tora Bora. This is an unjustified criticism of our military commanders in the field.” – President
Bush, October 25
So where is the October surprise? The US presidential election is less than a week away, and still he refuses a great Hollywood-style entrance – or a Lazarus-like resurrection from his cave. The whole world is asking: where is Osama bin Laden?
Don’t ask the Pakistanis. “No one knows where bin Laden is,” Pakistan’s Foreign Office spokesman Masood Khan said last Sunday. So maybe we should ask the Pentagon. According to a number of leaks by Pentagon officials, bin Laden is hiding in South Waziristan, in the Pakistani tribal areas, not far from the Toba Kakar mountain range in Baluchistan province. Khan seemed to be startled by this revelation: “We are getting in touch with them [the Pentagon] to clarify this matter.” Don’t ask the Pakistani military. Major General Shaukat Sultan has said they have been pursuing all of the Pentagon’s leads, to no avail. So maybe we should ask Pakistani President General Pervez Musharraf. In a recent interview with NBC he referred to “some broad indications” to proclaim he was “reasonably sure” that bin Laden is alive and absolutely sure he would be captured or killed. But he “didn’t know his location”.
Musharraf also said that the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) is working “very closely” with the Pakistani Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI) in the hunt for bin Laden and al-Qaeda. So maybe the ISI knows something Musharraf doesn’t. ISI officials in Karachi told Asia Times Online correspondent Syed Saleem Shahzad “they have no clue” where both bin Laden and his No 2, Ayman al-Zawahiri, might be. But they reconfirmed they are in Afghanistan. Other sources in Peshawar, very close to the tribal areas, told this correspondent bin Laden has been “for months” on the Afghan side of the border, because the Pakistani tribal areas “are infested with FBI and ISI operatives”.
According to Musharraf, “there’s no pressure” on him by the White House and the Pentagon to find bin Laden. “What pressure? he asked in his NBC interview. “Their [al-Qaeda] leadership, a few high level, and others mid and low level have been arrested – then we have attacked them in the mountains. We have attacked three of their very big sanctuaries in the valleys in the South Waziristan agency in tribal areas – but they’re on the run now. And they’re in smaller groups. Maybe there are a few more concentrations, which we don’t know. But they are on the run, as far as al-Qaeda is concerned, they’re on their own, surely.”
Trekking in Tora Bora
So bin Laden won’t surface as an October surprise. He won’t be captured and exhibited “Saddam-in-chains” style as another Bush hunting trophy. Funny, when we think that he should have surfaced as a November surprise – way back in 2001.
On November 17, 2001, as the Taliban regime was self-disintegrating, Osama bin Laden, his family and a convoy of 25 Toyota Land Cruisers left Jalalabad in eastern Afghanistan headed toward the mountains of Tora Bora. In late November, surrounded by his fiercest and most loyal Yemeni mujahideen in a cold Tora Bora cave, bin Laden delivered a stirring speech. One of his fighters, Abu Bakar, later captured by Afghan mujahideen, said bin Laden exhorted them to “hold your positions firm and be ready for martyrdom. I’ll be visiting you again very soon.”
A few days later, around what would probably have been November 30, bin Laden, along with four Yemeni mujahideen, left Tora Bora toward the village of Parachinar, in the Pakistani tribal areas. They walked undisturbed all the way – and then disappeared forever.
By the time the merciless American B-52 bombing raids were about to begin, bin Laden had already left Tora Bora – as a number of Afghan mujahideen confirmed to Asia Times Online at the time. They said they had seen him on the other side of the frontline in late November. Hazrat Ali, the warlord and then so-called minister of “law and order” in the Eastern Shura (traditional decision-making council) in Afghanistan, was outsourced by the Pentagon to go after bin Laden and al-Qaeda in Tora Bora. He bagged a handful of suitcases full of cash. He put on a show for the cameras. And significantly, he was barely in touch with the few Special Forces on the ground.
The crucial point is that while bin Laden was already in Pakistan, General Tommy Franks at US Central Command headquarters in Tampa, Florida, was being directed by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld to concentrate on toppling Saddam Hussein. According to Bob Woodward’s Plan of Attack, on “December 1, a Saturday, Rumsfeld sent through the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff a Top Secret planning order to Franks asking him to come up with the commander’s estimate to build the base of a new Iraq war plan. In two pages the order said Rumsfeld wanted to know how Franks would conduct military operations to remove Saddam from power, eliminate the threat of any possible weapons of mass destruction, and choke off his suspected support of terrorism.”
Also in early December, Pir Baksh Bardiwal, the man responsible for intelligence operations in eastern Afghanistan, was absolutely puzzled: why didn’t the Pentagon block all the obvious exit trails from Tora Bora, when all of Hazrat Ali’s mujahideen, paid by the US, knew them by heart? Only a few Arab al-Qaeda fighters were captured in Tora Bora – after bin Laden had left (later they were sent to Guantanamo, along with hundreds of Afghan bystanders). Most of the al-Qaeda fighters that remained in Tora Bora died in battle, as “martyrs”, buried under the rubble caused by bunker-buster bombs. As far as the American military was concerned, Pir Baksh was adamant: “Al-Qaeda escaped right out from under their feet.”
So it was a major Pentagon blunder. It was a major Rumsfeld-Franks blunder. It was a major White House blunder. And there were two reasons for it: 1) The Pentagon outsourced the war in eastern Afghanistan to the wrong warlords, who were collecting suitcases full of cash with one hand and spreading disinformation with the other. 2) The White House’s and the Pentagon’s attention were already directed toward toppling Saddam. This all amounts to Senator John Kerry being fundamentally correct when he charges on the campaign trail that Bush blew it in Tora Bora. This is not a “wild claim”, as Bush puts it: it’s a serious charge that debunks the whole myth of Bush as a strong and resolute commander-in-chief of the “war on terror”.