He's Welcome In Pakistan

By Ahmed Rashid
Sunday, February 26, 2006

LAHORE When President Bush lands in Islamabad later this week, it may be the closest he ever comes to being in the same neighborhood as Osama bin Laden. His nemesis is probably only a few hours drive away in Pakistan's Pashtun belt, now considered to be al Qaeda Central and one of the world's most dangerous regions.

During the past 12 months or so, CIA and Pentagon officials have quietly modified the line they employed for three years after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks -- that bin Laden was hiding out "in the tribal areas along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border." Now the same officials say with some confidence that he is "not based in Afghanistan." Whatever ambiguity there was in the past is gone: Bin Laden is in Pakistan.

What's left is the question: What are the United States and its ally, Pakistan, doing about it?

Not enough, according to high-ranking Afghan, Pakistani and Western officials I've spoken to here. Indeed, the disastrous policies of the United States and Pakistan, starting with the aftermath of the war in 2001, have only hastened the radicalization of northwest Pakistan and made it more hospitable to bin Laden and his Taliban allies. The region has become a haven for bin Laden and a base for Taliban raids across the border back into Afghanistan which they had fled.

Not that you'd be able to tell any of that from what Bush administration officials have been saying. Almost everything the administration claims about the al Qaeda leader is tinged with bravado and untruthfulness. "We are dealing with a figure who has been able to hide, but he's on the run," Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said earlier this month. Here in Pakistan, however, the view is different. Bin Laden is not considered to be on the run, but well protected by friends who are making his life as comfortable as possible.

After all, his number two, the Egyptian doctor Ayman al-Zawahiri, appears to have a busy social calendar in Pakistan's Pashtun belt. U.S. missiles narrowly missed him at a dinner party held in his honor on Jan. 13.

This represents a change in venue for bin Laden and his lieutenants. Before the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, bin Laden's zone of influence was among Pashtuns in Afghanistan, which was the center of the Taliban's power and its major recruiting base. The Pashtuns are Afghanistan's largest ethnic group and have ruled the country for the past 300 years. They were artificially divided by the British so that today millions of Pashtuns also live across the border in Pakistan, many of them in seven so-called tribal agencies where control by the government has been minimal.

It was in eastern Afghanistan that bin Laden made his last public appearance in Jalalabad on Nov. 10, 2001, just after the northern cities had begun to fall to the anti-Taliban alliance. He addressed an estimated 1,000 Pashtun notables and militants, urging them to continue resisting the American invaders, according to U.S. journalists working in the region at the time. He dished out wads of U.S. and Pakistani cash and then disappeared into the mountain fastness of Tora Bora, never to be seen again. (The CIA didn't learn of the meeting for several days.)

Few Afghan Pashtuns would have dared to betray him then. But times have changed in Afghanistan. The majority of Afghan Pashtuns now want the benefits of peace -- economic development, roads and schools.

Pakistan's Pashtuns, by contrast, have become more radicalized than they ever were before 9/11. And the bloody Taliban-al Qaeda resurgence now under way has relied on Pakistan's Pashtun belt for most of its recruitment, logistics, weapons and funding.

Bin Laden's new friendship zone stretches nearly 2,000 miles along Pakistan's Pashtun belt -- from Chitral in the Northern Areas near the Chinese border, south through the troubled tribal agencies including Waziristan, down to Zhob on the Balochistan border, then to the provincial capital Quetta and southwest to the Iranian border. The region includes every landscape from desert to snow-capped mountains. Sparsely populated, it provides bin Laden an ideal sanctuary.

Al Qaeda's money, inspiration and organizational abilities have helped turn Pakistan's Pashtun belt into the extremist base it is today, but U.S. and Pakistani policies have helped more. Although the Taliban and al Qaeda extremists were routed from Afghanistan by U.S. forces, Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld's refusal to put enough U.S. troops on the ground let the extremists escape and regroup in Pakistan's Pashtun belt. The Taliban settled in Balochistan where they had originated before 1994, while al Qaeda members hid in the tribal agencies they knew well. Bin Laden had built tunnels and caves there for the anti-Soviet mujaheddin in the 1980s.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2006 The Washington Post Company