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On Kerry, Bush and bin Laden
By B Raman

In his campaign for election as president of the United States, Democratic Senator John Kerry has been blaming incumbent President George W Bush for the failure to capture or kill Osama bin Laden during the battle at Tora Bora in Afghanistan toward 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 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 palms 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 until bin Laden was caught, and some Pakistani narcotics barons arrested before September 11, 2001, under US pressure and jailed in Pakistan were released at the Pentagon's behest for use in Tora Bora.

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 Muslim fasting period, bin Laden 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 (see The new Iraq-bin Laden connection,  Apr 1). Presuming what bin Laden stated was 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".

The Tora Bora operation failed for two reasons. First, 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. Second, 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 shrapnel injury at Tora Bora, was shifted to the Binori madrassa in Karachi, where he was under treatment until August 2002. Since then he has disappeared. He was keeping in touch with his followers through video and audio messages until this April. 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 September 11, 2001, 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 September 11. Instead, there was a message from Ayman al-Zawahiri, his No 2. Nor was there a message before the start of the fasting period this Ramadan.

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

  • He is dead. Reliable Shi'ite sources in Pakistan believe 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 were really dead the news would have spread like wildfire 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 indicates 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 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 Shi'ite Hazaras would hunt him.

    In my past articles, I have argued as to why it was unlikely that he would take shelter in the tribal areas near the Afghan border. The most important argument was that US 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 President General Pervez Musharraf and kill or whisk him out.

    Shi'ite 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 Fallujah, a stronghold of diehard Sunni elements. And it is outside the easy reach of US troops.

    B Raman is additional secretary (retired), Cabinet Secretariat, government of India, and currently director, Institute for Topical Studies, Chennai, and Distinguished Fellow and Convenor, Observer Research Foundation (ORF), Chennai Chapter. E-mail:

  • Oct 26, 2004
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