Bring Me the Head of Osama bin Laden
by Steve Weissman,
t r u t h o u t | Perspective
If Osama bin Laden consciously set out to lure the United States into an ever-widening, never-ending and militarily unwinnable war, President George W. Bush is providing exactly the war the bearded one wanted. Start with Iraq, where for all his talk of military success, Mr. Bush has just failed to get Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to accept a long-term Status of Forces Agreement. The Iraqis, it turns out, stubbornly insist on a timetable for withdrawing US troops and a commitment to block the Israelis from using Iraqi airspace to bomb Iran. Such are the political fruits of imperial adventure in a world that has long rejected colonial rule. Nor should it come as a surprise to hear our badly overstretched military brass echoing Barack Obama in Monday's New York Times. It seems that everyone in the know now wants to withdraw combat forces from the Iraqi quagmire to send them to fight the resurgent Taliban and opium-rich warlords in an Afghan morass.
Move on to Iran, where the New Yorker's Sy Hersh has caught Washington sponsoring what can only be called terrorist attacks within the country, while Mr. Bush now tells the Israelis to go ahead with their preparations for possible aerial strikes against Tehran's nuclear enrichment and other facilities.
On to Afghanistan, where the CIA's hand-picked Hamid Karzai has predictably failed to become a viable national leader, mostly because his fellow Pashtun tribesmen see him for what he is - the Afghan face of a foreign military occupation. US and allied casualties now surpass the monthly totals in Iraq, while our supposed friends in Pakistan's military intelligence are widely suspected of sponsoring last week's terrorist bombing of the Indian embassy in Kabul.
And so to Pakistan, where the Pentagon is systematically destabilizing the newly elected and highly fragile civilian government, as the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln and its task force sit menacingly off the Pakistani coast.
Allahu Akhbar! What more could bin Laden want?
Of the four historically unpromising battlegrounds into which we have strayed, the Pakistani front remains the least understood and potentially most explosive. In a word, our increasingly intrusive military presence could easily trigger a full-scale civil war in the only Islamic country with a ready-to-go nuclear arsenal and the missiles to deliver them.
The current showdown began in January, when US Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell, CIA Director Gen. Michael Hayden and then-chief of Central Command Admiral William Fallon flew to Pakistan to put the screws to the country's embattled military ruler, Gen. Pervez Musharraf. They wanted his blessing for US Special Forces to escalate combat operations in the country's Northwest Frontier Province, the semi-autonomous Pashtun lands that neither the Pakistani government nor the British Raj ever truly controlled. The Americans believed that Osama bin Laden had holed up in this ruggedly mountainous region after fleeing Afghanistan, and they wanted to flush him out.
Reportedly, Musharraf refused. He knew, as the Americans apparently did not, that more Yankee boots on the ground would deeply offend most Pakistanis and create a furious backlash from the stubbornly independent Pashtuns. But, needing to keep a semblance of US support, Musharraf gave his visitors what Newsweek called "virtually unrestricted authority" to launch unmanned Predator drones from secret bases near Islamabad and Jacobabad. The Predators each carry multiple missiles, which American controllers have sent hurtling down in increasing number upon suspected terrorists and whoever else gets in the way. Since January, the Predators have created some highly unpopular "collateral damage" among Pashtun families and Pakistani soldiers, while US-led troops in Afghanistan have claimed the right to fire into the region from Afghanistan in "hot pursuit" of fleeing Taliban fighters. Though all of the governments involved formally deny it, intelligence sources have openly admitted that American and British special forces are regularly crossing into Pakistan against the express wishes of the civilian government.
Paradoxically, this all looks like precisely the scenario for which Obama was widely criticized in the primaries, when he said, "If we have actionable intelligence about high-value terrorist targets and President Musharraf won't act, we will." Having established himself as tough guy, Obama now talks more of the need to balance such military action with a long-range political agenda in both Pakistan and Afghanistan. But this kind of balancing seems to have escaped most of the Bush administration.
Why, then, their suddenly renewed interest in finding bin Laden after so many years of letting him run free? The answer is both simple and shabby. During Mr. Bush's short stay in London in mid-June, the Sunday Times reported that he had ordered his troops to capture bin Laden before the administration leaves office as a way to secure the Bush legacy. "If he [Bush] can say he has killed Saddam Hussein and captured Bin Laden, he can claim to have left the world a safer place," the Sunday Times quoted one US intelligence source. "Bush is swinging for the fences in the hope of scoring a home run."
Is giving bin Laden the martyrdom he craves worth destroying civilian democracy and risking a civil war in Pakistan? To George W. Bush and the hyper-military John McCain, the question is hardly worth asking.
A veteran of the Berkeley Free Speech Movement and the New Left monthly Ramparts, Steve Weissman lived for many years in London, working as a magazine writer and television producer. He now lives and works in France.