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
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
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
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.
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:[email protected].