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.
What followed was a disaster: For 27 months after the fall of the Taliban regime, Pakistan's president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, Washington's closest ally in the region, allowed the extremists free rein in the Pashtun tribal areas to re-establish training camps for militants who had escaped Afghanistan. These included Arabs, Central Asians, Chechens, Kashmiris, Africans, Uighurs and a smattering of East Asians. It was a mini-replay of the gathering in Afghanistan after bin Laden arrived there in 1996.
Musharraf did capture some Arab members of al Qaeda, but he avoided the Taliban because he was convinced that the U.S.-led coalition forces would not stay long in Afghanistan. He wanted to maintain the Taliban as a strategic option in case Afghanistan dissolved into civil war and chaos again. The army also protected extremist Kashmiri groups who had trained in Afghanistan before 9/11 and now had to be repositioned.
Indeed, in March 2002, just three months after the defeat of the Taliban, the United States began to withdraw its Special Forces, surveillance satellites and drones from Afghanistan to prepare for war in Iraq. Distracted by Baghdad, it did not notice what was happening in the tribal agencies. By the time the Pakistan army entered South Waziristan in March 2004, the extremists were so well entrenched that 250 Pakistani soldiers were killed in the first encounters.
Since then, with no consistent political strategy to woo the Pashtun population away from bin Laden, the army has steadily lost ground. The political agents, who ran the tribal agencies with a mixture of bribery and pressure, have been replaced by arrogant generals ignorant of local conditions. Today the extremists rule over North and South Waziristan and other tribal agencies, while the 70,000 Pakistani troops stationed there are boxed up in outposts, too frightened to patrol the mountains. More than 100 pro-government tribal elders have been assassinated by extremists for divulging information to the U.S. or Pakistani secret services.
Meanwhile down south, the Balochistan provincial government is controlled by a coalition of pro-Taliban fundamentalist parties, which came to power in elections in 2002. Jamiat-e-Ulema-i-Islami, the party that controls the key ministries, openly supports the Taliban.
This has created a new stronghold from which the Taliban can launch attacks back in Afghanistan. The 99 U.S. soldiers killed last year in Afghanistan were mostly targeted by the Taliban based in Balochistan. While Washington's principal aim has been to capture bin Laden and decapitate al Qaeda, whose members are believed to be in Waziristan, the United States has failed to pressure Pakistan to deal with the Taliban, despite protestations from Afghan President Hamid Karzai. On a visit to Islamabad this month, Karzai handed Musharraf intelligence dossiers detailing how suicide bombers are being trained in Pakistan. In the past few months, at least 30 attacks have killed nearly 100 people in Afghanistan, including NATO peacekeepers and a Canadian diplomat.
The dossiers listed the names and addresses of Pakistani recruiters and people who equip suicide bombers with explosives before sending them to Afghanistan. Much of the recruitment takes place at a radical Islamic bookshop, several mosques and some madrassas in the port city of Karachi, while the training is done at safe houses in Quetta and Chaman, in Balochistan province.
"We have provided President Musharraf with a lot of very detailed information on acts of terrorism . . . and we discussed in great detail what actions Pakistan could now take," Karzai told me on Feb. 17 in Islamabad. ''Americans are dying, a Canadian diplomat has been killed, our people are suffering. So it is time that action is taken to stop these acts of terrorism and interference in Afghanistan internal affairs," he said. "We expect results."
Getting those results won't be easy. Bin Laden has fighters and sympathizers down the length and breadth of Pakistan's Pashtun belt. No Pakistani Pashtun has reason to betray bin Laden, despite the $27 million reward for his head. Thanks to the drug trade in Afghanistan and the suitcases full of cash still arriving from backers in the Arabian Gulf, neither al Qaeda nor the local Pashtuns are short money. The Pakistani army's failure to offer Pashtuns a greater political role in the national framework has not inspired any loyalty among the tribesmen. And misguided U.S. interventions, such as the January missile strike that killed women and children, do the rest.
Washington's recent decison to start pulling U.S. troops out of Afghanistan this year has only reinforced al Qaeda's belief that it is winning. After nearly five years of avoiding capture or death, every single day that bin Laden stays alive is a day that inspires the extremists who protect him and join his ranks.
Ahmed Rashid, a Pakistani journalist, is the author of "Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil and Fundamentalism in Central Asia" (Yale University Press) and "Jihad: The Rise of Militant Islam in Central Asia" (Penguin Books).