The Specter of the Enemy
An unnamed NATO source, one believed to be involved in day to day operations in Afghanistan, has recently claimed, apparently with some certainty, that Osama Bin Laden is alive and well in Pakistan. Rather than living in a cave, as some have come to believe, the Al-Qaeda number one is resting comfortably somewhere in the northern areas of the Federally Administered Tribal Area of Pakistan, possibly in or near the Kurram Valley.
Great, so we got him, right?
I imagine anyone who has followed the war in Afghanistan – and the war on terror generally – would not be at all surprised by the idea that Bin Laden and Zawahiri are in Pakistan. There have been numerous statements over the past several years to suggest it, and in fact it is one of the few possible scenarios that make any sense. If the rumors concerning Bin Laden’s need for a kidney dialysis machine are true, the “hiding out in a cave” scenario loses credibility.
Richard Holbrooke was quoted in The Guardian as saying that “we hardly have a day go by” without someone claiming to know Bin Laden’s whereabouts. The thing that’s interestingly absent from Holbrooke’s statement is where the US thinks he is. When the news of the NATO official came out, the Washington Post claimed the “mystery” may finally be solved. Mystery? There are only so many places he could be, right?
Clearly, Holbrooke is right about the fact that this isn’t the first time someone has claimed to know where the world’s most wanted man is hiding. In 2003, Indian General KPS Gill claimed that he had firsthand information that the Pakistani ISI knew of Bin Laden’s whereabouts. In 2006, Ahmad Rashid stated unequivocally that Bin Laden was in Pakistan. Yet each one of these claims was met by the same reaction, the latest iteration being Pakistani Interior Minister Rehman Malik stating in Dawn that there is no truth to the NATO official’s claim, and such statements are being used to “malign Pakistan.”
I am not privy to classified information; I am not an intelligence specialist. However, I have been following these events in some detail for years. But I don’t suspect it takes much of an expert to come to the conclusion that Bin Laden and indeed, the leadership of Al Qaeda, is hiding in either the FATA or North or South Waziristan. If anything, the “maligning” of Pakistan is a simple indictment of the fact that these vast Pashtun areas along the Afghani border are completely beyond Pakistani control. Furthermore, knowing where Bin Laden is (even generally) does not mean that the US can simply “go in and get him.” It sounds ironic, considering we just “went in” and got Saddam, and just “went in” and went after the Taliban. However, with Pakistan we are dealing with a very precarious and difficult case. Pakistani sovereignty, the future stability of the state and nuclear weapons all conspire to make any US intervention deep into Pakistani territory a very dangerous tightrope act.
And it is this situation that makes a direct assault on Al Qaeda by US forces impossible at this current moment. However, there may be one other possible perspective here. I don’t want to sound like a conspiracy nut of some kind, but I think it is distinctly possible to view Bin Laden and Al-Qaeda in the context of their propaganda value. There is no question that the American, and indeed global, public were subject to many exaggerations and sometimes outright lies regarding both Al-Qaeda and Iraq in the last several years. Remember the initial descriptions of the caves of Tora Bora by Donald Rumsfeld? It read like something out of an Ian Fleming novel. And let’s not forget the string of dishonesties regarding Iraq. The bottom line, governments have always understood the power of nightmares. Sometimes the threat is in fact real, but the details are blown out of proportion, or simplified to make the image of the enemy stark and easy to understand. This latter dimension is precisely why Bin Laden represents such an effective propaganda tool. Like Orwell’s Goldstein, Bin Laden becomes the repository of all of our projected, collective fears, an agent of chaos, with obscure religious views (though no religious credentials!), a single minded focus on destruction, a deep seated hatred of “civilization” at large. Even his physical appearance in many ways typifies the feared image of the dangerous oriental, dark, swarthy, with a hooked nose and a discordant effeminate quality. And most importantly, he is uncomplicated. Compare Bin Laden to Hassan Nasrallah. The Hezbollah leader has repeated numerous times that his movement is involved in a local struggle. Nasrallah condemned the events of 9/11, he is a savvy, public, and charismatic figure. Indeed, Nasrallah is polarizing, but he is not surrounded by the aura of myth, he is multi-dimensional and arguments can be made that will sympathize with his positions (albeit with great contentiousness). Even the most ardent anti-war leftists risk total ridicule if they attempt to justify Bin Laden’s position. Al Qaeda and its leadership represent the perfect Manichean Devil, an emotionally potent oversimplification that stirs the imagination as much, if not more than, the intellect and thus, has a certain value to the fear machine if he remains elusive and alive.