It must be hard for a generation raised on Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Bruce Willis flicks to see how the U.S.’s Delta Force, Army Rangers, or some other fun-loving commando unit cannot find one sickly old madman in a turban. But here it is nearly six years after George W. Bush vowed to bring Osama bin Laden to justice “dead or alive,” and our intelligent services and armed forces seem not to have a clue where bin Laden is hiding, nor much desire to find out. Try to imagine a scenario in which — following Nazi Germany’s surrender — Adolf Hitler had not committed suicide, but remained in his bunker under Berlin setting up house with Eva Braun. Above ground the Allies decided not to expend the manpower to find the Fuhrer, but decided rather to attack Croatia.
It is unclear whether American or Pakistani intelligence officials know where bin Laden is. Our best guess seems to be that “The Sheik” is alive and kicking back in some grotto in Waziristan. So what is keeping the U.S. from sending in covert special ops troops to hunt him down? Are U.S. officials really that afraid of the overwhelming force of the Waziri tribesmen, doubtless some of the most backward people on Earth?
Well, based on past experience, the U.S. high command prefers to dither rather than to launch an actual operation, particularly one that might include risk. Arguably our best chance to get bin Laden came on Dec. 15, 2001, when “The Sheik” was overheard live on Jihad Radio broadcasting from the beautiful Tora Bora caves. Surrounded by U.S. and Northern Alliance troops and his capture a dead certainty, bin Laden was on the verge — a la Hitler — of committing suicide. Then the U.S. dithered. Gen. Tommy Franks decided it would take weeks to mobilize his forces, and the terrain was intolerable. And snowy. Besides somebody could get frostbite. Such dawdling allowed bin Laden to escape.
Franks counters that the U.S. was never sure where bin Laden was, which seems not so much a proper defense as more evidence of the general’s incompetence and unpreparedness. Besides, explained Franks in a 2004 New York Times op-ed, “Killing and capturing Taliban and Qaeda fighters was best done by the Afghan fighters who already knew the caves and tunnels.” In fact, the U.S. relied heavily on untrained Afghan tribesmen, whose leaders sometimes took bribes from al Qaeda and the CIA. Newsweek notes that one of these leaders — the aptly named Hazrat Ali — accepted $6 million from al Qaeda to help bin Laden escape in 2001. (Curiously U.S. officials continue to insist that loyal and god-fearing Afghan tribesmen are not interested in the $25 million bounty on bin Laden’s head.) More important, Franks was preoccupied with the upcoming Iraq invasion and already had one foot out the door. Delta Force and other top-flight special ops forces were soon transferred to Iraq.
In fact, the CIA had no fewer than 10 chances between May 1998 and May 1999 to capture bin Laden, according to Michael Scheuer, author of Imperial Hubris, and first head of Alec Station, the CIA unit dedicated to capturing bin Laden and his top lieutenants. And Newsweek recounted a near miss last winter when American troops came within shouting distance of stumbling upon bin Laden’s hideyhole. At this point it seems if bin Laden is captured it will likely be a result of dumb luck.
Blown chances, near misses and reprioritization might be the keywords for any Google search of “CIA, Osama bin Laden.” Speaking of reprioritization, last year the agency shut down Alec Station (apparently it could no longer spare the two dozen bin Laden experts deployed there). Scheuer told the London Times that the closing “reflected a view within the agency that Mr. bin Laden was no longer the threat he once was.”
That is pretty much the general attitude no matter which general you talk to. In 2005 the Times interviewed newly retired CIA executive director and chief operating officer AB “Buzzy” Krongard. Krongard, a former investment banker — who will hopefully return to investment banking — said that the world is better off with Osama bin Laden a free man. “If the world’s most wanted terrorist is captured or killed, a power struggle among his al Qaeda subordinates may trigger a wave of terror attacks….You can make the argument that we’re better off with him (at large)….Because if something happens to Bin Laden, you might find a lot of people vying for his position and demonstrating how macho they are by unleashing a stream of terror.”
Similarly, Retired Gen. Barry McCaffrey recently told NBC that if he were in charge of the Armed Forces the priority to capture Osama bin Laden would be “pretty low.” Meanwhile the Times reported that several U.S. officials say privately that it may be better to keep bin Laden pinned down on the Afghanistan and Pakistan border rather than make him a martyr. Of course, bin Laden is already more respected than any old martyr. Indeed he is now regarded as a great and holy warrior whom Allah has made invincible.
Finally some in the media are saying that even if bin Laden is hunted down it would by this stage have little strategic impact. “Bin Laden has already achieved what he set out to do, by creating al Qaeda,” the Independent editorialized. Others insist that his capture no longer matters, that a martyred bin Laden will just be replaced by another madman. Right. So we stop looking for rapists and serial killers, since there will always be more rapists and serial killers coming along.
WHAT COULD BE THE possible motivation for trivializing bin Laden’s importance? Do U.S. officials hope to brush over the fact that they all but abandoned the search for “The Sheik” to go chasing after nonexistent WMD in Iraq, and are now using all our manpower trying to officiate bickering Islamic sects in Iraq? When U.S. officials are not trivializing bin Laden, they are busily making excuses why he has managed to evade capture: the Pakistani-Afghan region is too wild and dangerous for U.S. (or even Pakistani) troops to enter; U.S. troops cannot simply barge into Pakistan uninvited any old time they want and upset the natives and risk the stability of President Pervez Musharraf’s rule; the Pentagon and Langley are as risk averse as my 98-year-old grandma and often refuse to act unless they are 100 percent certain of success; a monstrous bureaucracy with an approval process that often takes days makes it impossible to move quickly on fresh intelligence; and the Iraq War stretched the resources of the intelligence agencies and the Pentagon thinner than Shriver’s Saltwater Taffy.
What does it say about a nation when the world’s most wanted man, the terrorist top dog, is treated with all the seriousness of an undocumented immigrant: Don’t make a show of yourself and we’ll pretend you do not exist? According to Scheuer, it indicates a “want of moral courage, an overwhelming concern for career advancement, or an abject inability to distinguish right from wrong.” Sadly he seems to be correct on all counts.
It is easy to see why war criminals like Ratko Mladic and Radovan Karadzic remain at large. The United Nations’ EUFOR is charged with their capture. But Bin Laden is America’s charge. As long as our man bin Laden is on the lam, taunting Americans with his backside, showing George W. Bush to be a bumbling and incompetent leader, our enemies will loll and wallow in this cheap and vainglorious moment. Bin Laden must be captured to show the world that religious cutthroats cannot get away with attacking the U.S., and that there is no safe haven for terrorists anywhere on Earth. We need bin Laden’s head on a stick to boost our morale, while simultaneously demonstrating to Islamists that Allah has not blessed bin Laden and made him invincible. One would think that with the president’s approval ratings in the toilet, that, if for no other reason, George Bush would put his best men back on bin Laden’s cold, snow-covered trail. One would think. But as long as our government is more fixed on patting down my 98-year-old grandma at the airport security line, the legend of “The Sheik” will continue to grow in eminence.
The hunt for bin Laden’s capture may not be the job for a fictional superhero like Willis’ John McLane, but it is the job for a real leader. Mr. President, you have one year to salvage your presidency. Find and kill bin Laden.
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