US hunting Bin Ladin in Pakistan as Bush hopes for political boost

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Whatever one’s view of Usama bin Ladin, his understanding of issues and his methods, one thing is indisputable: he has carved a niche for himself in world politics, thanks to US president Bush’s obsession with him. Bush views Usama as a useful foil against which to advance his own right-wing agenda; hence his constant references to the threat Usama poses.

The man from Arabia, now probably residing in some remote cave in Afghanistan, was again in the news last month. On February 20 Pakistani intelligence sources leaked word that Usama had been trapped in the mountains near Quetta. There was even speculation that both Usama and Mullah Umar, the reclusive Taliban leader, have already been captured and that this will be announced at the best time to boost Bush’s sagging electoral fortunes, perhaps at the Democratic Party national convention in July.

Interestingly, the Usama story did not make it into any Pakistani newspaper in the next two days. Only on February 23, after the story had been published in Australian and British Sunday papers, did Pakistani journalists wake up to it. The Karachi daily Dawn carried a story based on the British tabloid Sunday Express, although others had already referred to the Australian Sunday Telegraph. According to this version, Usama and 50 supporters are trapped in the Toba Kakar mountains in an area 16 kilometres north of the towns of Khanozai and Quetta (Baluchistan province, Pakistan).

Muhammad Azam Khan, the political agent of South Waziristan tribal agency, has said that he requested a sharp increase in the presence of Pakistani troops in the area –” to 12,000 from 4,000 –” to track down Taliban and al-Qa’ida fighters, according to a story in the New York Times on February 23. He was further quoted as saying that such a large force was needed because of the size of the area. Pakistani interior minister Faisal Saleh Hayat also confirmed this when he said on February 22 that a military operation was about to be launched. One military spokesman, major general Shaukat Sultan, however, dismissed these reports, saying that they were based on speculation, and even denied that additional troops had been sent to the area. He also denied reports emanating from Kabul that coalition forces were now able to enter Pakistan in "hot pursuit" of militants.

There has been much speculation about a spring offensive in South Waziristan, after warnings from the Americans that Pakistan is "not doing enough". On February 11 CIA director George Tenet reportedly visited Islamabad and read General Musharraf the riot act. Musharraf is already under considerable pressure because of Pakistan’s nuclear fiasco. The following day, while addressing officers at the Military Staff College, Musharraf admitted that, while not all operations in Afghanistan originated from Pakistan, some infiltration from Pakistan was taking place, and that this has to be stopped. On February 18, while addressing a convention of ulama in Islamabad, he again warned that "extremist elements" must be weeded out, otherwise the Americans are likely to attack Pakistan.

Under pressure from the Americans, the Pakistan army has adopted harsh colonial-era tactics of collective punishment against Waziri tribesmen, who are told that they must hand over Taliban and al-Qa’ida suspects, or their houses will be blown up. Tribal elders of the Ahmedzai and Utmanzai tribes in South Waziristan have been handed lists of suspects whom the army wants. Failure to comply invites harsh collective punishments against the entire tribe, in the manner of Israel’s tactics in Occupied Palestine. The army has also threatened to take hostages if suspects are not surrendered.

Whatever the truth about Usama’s whereabouts, if he is not apprehended he will become a major embarrassment for Bush; he is certainly a major headache for Musharraf and his officers. Already some American commentators –” Stephen Cohen of the Brookings Institution, for instance –” have said that the general is out of his depth and will not be able to deliver. Musharraf must be aware of the possible personal consequences if the US decides that he cannot provide the services they expect.

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