|Nov. 18, 2001|
THE NOOSE TIGHTENS ON OSAMA BIN LADEN
Osama bin Laden has survived at least ten assassination attempts mounted by the Soviets, Saudi Arabia, and the United States. But now, after the rapid retreat of Taliban forces and fall of Kabul to the Russian-backed Northern Alliance, the noose is tightening around the world's most wanted man.
Taliban's retreat was inevitable. Its 30,000, lightly-armed tribal fighters spread over a Texas-sized nation could not withstand massive US air attacks and Northern Alliance Tajik and Uzbek troops freshly supplied by Russia with tanks, armored vehicles, and artillery. Taliban's deftly executed surprise retreat wrong-footed the US. Washington didn't want the Alliance to occupy Kabul before it could cobble together a government of its own choosing. Taliban's retreat that opened the way for the Northern Allinace to seize Kabul was a nasty Parthian shaft that hit Pakistan in the eye - revenge for Islamabad abandoning Taliban.
The Northern Alliance is a proxy for Russia. Its two military leaders are Gen. Rashid Dostam, a brutal communist warlord who slaughtered 30,000 civilians in the 1990's, and Gen. Faheem, a senior officer of Khad, the former Afghan communist secret police, an arm of the Soviet KGB. Khad tortured and murdered thousands of Afghans.
To Washington's embarrassment, the Alliance also controls Afghanistan's opium and heroin exports. Taliban, a religious movement, had shut down the drug trade. Bush's war against terrorism has plainly taken priority over the war on drugs.
Handing northern Afghanistan and Kabul over to the Russians appears the price the US had to pay for Moscow's support in the hunt for bin Laden. As this column has long warned, if Taliban were overthrown, it would be replaced by the even more brutal Uzbek-Tajik alliance dominated by Russia. Having ousted the Russians from Afghanistan in the 1980's, Washington has now invited them back in. So far, clever Vladimir Putin is the big winner in the Afghan mess.
Mullah Omar, Taliban's leader, ordered his men to retreat into Pushtun territory in southwest Afghanistan, and into neighboring Northwest Frontier Province. In this wild region, birthplace of Taliban, heavily-armed Pushtun tribesmen are a law unto themselves.
Taliban says it will now wage guerilla war from NWP and from the central Hindu Kush mountains north of Kandahar. The Talibs believe guerrilla fighting will allow them to finally engage US troops hunting for bin Laden at more equal odds. Unless Taliban quickly collapses from mass defections, the war has entered a new phase.
The US military plan for Afghanistan is on schedule, though its political agenda certainly is not. In fact, occupation of Kabul by the Northern Alliance was an embarrassing political defeat for the US and Pakistan.
US special forces are now hunting down bin Laden, who is believed hiding in cave complexes north of Kandahar that he helped build during the jihad against the Soviets It is essential for the US to capture bin Laden or at least recover his body. If he somehow escapes, or is buried alive in a cave, the US will be unable to proclaim victory and have to face charges it tore apart Afghanistan, killed large numbers of civilians, and created tens of thousands of refugees, for nothing. In fact, the US could just as well have hunted bin Laden without launching a full-scale war against Afghanistan.
Last week, pro-Taliban sources reported bin Laden vowed he will not be taken alive, a position perfectly in keeping with his record as a courageous fighter against the Soviets and a `mujahid,' ready to become `shahid,' for his faith.
The $25 million dollar reward being offered by the US for bin Laden will certainly tempt local tribesmen and even some Taliban leaders to hand him over to the Americans. Sudden betrayal and double-dealing are the norm in Afghanistan. Pakistan's government would also reap huge additional rewards from the US by handing over bin Laden.
Las week, President George Bush authorized closed military tribunals for the first time since WWII. They are clearly designed to avoid bin Laden and his associates, if captured, standing trial in open courts where they could defend themselves and win sympathy in the Third World. These hanging courts, which are sure to hand down death sentences, are more worthy of the Soviet Union than the United States.
There is still a remote chance the elusive bin Laden could escape. He may slip across the border into the Northwest Frontier and be hidden by friendly Pushtun tribesmen. There is much sympathy for Taliban and bin Laden in Pakistan. Some Islamist officers of Pakistan's army or intelligence service might aid bin Laden's escape. But it will be very difficult for the world's most notorious man to change his appearance. Bin laden is over 6 foot 4, gaunt, and, currently, the world's most famous face.
There are very few places where bin Laden could hide. Nations like Sudan, Somalia, Yemen, Nigeria or Indonesia would be unable to withstand American pressure to hand him over. Bin Laden and Iraq's Saddam Hussein are bitter enemies. Libya is lying low. Iran and the Russian-satellite states of Central Asia are his bitter enemies. China is hostile. Wherever bin Laden might find refuge, he is almost certain to be sold to the US for cash or political favors.
The day bin Laden openly declared a one-man war against the US over Israel, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia, this Arab Don Quixote signed his own death warrant.
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