By Fred Burton
The tone of U.S. and Pakistani diplomats has shifted — suddenly and markedly — in the perennial discussions about the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden. The Americans, normally quite vocal about pressing their demands in the war on terrorism, have now sounded an extremely deferential note toward Islamabad. In an interview last week with the editorial board of Time magazine, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said the Pakistani military is "probably" better suited
than American forces to conduct the search for bin Laden and other top al Qaeda officials, who long have been believed to be hiding in northwestern Pakistan, along the Afghan border. Rice then proceeded to contradict a great many of her Bush administration colleagues in saying that Pakistan, which has long stymied efforts
to capture bin Laden, actually has every incentive to do so — and that its failure to deliver his head on a platter to Washington is quite understandable given the difficult terrain. Not to be outdone, Pakistani President Gen. Pervez Musharraf told Time that he hopes bin Laden eventually will be captured "somewhere outside Pakistan [b]y some other people." While Musharraf's frankness on the matter is a little surprising, his sentiment certainly is not. For four years, the search for bin Laden has been a political hot potato that Musharraf — squeezed on one side by the United States and on the other by domestic Islamists who would come unleashed if foreign forces operated on Pakistani soil — dared not touch. Nothing would be better, in his eyes, than for bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri (and whoever else might be hiding in Pakistan) to obligingly move off and become someone else's problem. Rice's statements are rather more interesting, since they could be interpreted in several different ways. First, one could argue that she was using reverse psychology. In her rather sweet defense of Pakistan's performance in the search for al Qaeda leaders, Islamabad doubtless will get the message that the Bush administration wants him found and killed yesterday — or else. Second, her discussion might have been a move by the White House — whose standing with the American public has been damaged by the ongoing war in Iraq and the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina — to pre-empt further criticism over its failure to find and, in every sense of the word, annihilate bin Laden. By planting the seed that responsibility for bin Laden ultimately lies elsewhere, the Bush administration begins to wash its hands of a question that, despite being on the minds of the public, serves no purpose for the United States to engage. The question of bin Laden's fate is not an easy one for the White House. On the one hand, the American public both wants and needs the psychological closure that news of bin Laden's capture, punishment and death would bring to the wounds of 9/11. Four years on, however, the search for the world's most wanted man ostensibly still continues, and the issue of his whereabouts — or even whether he is alive or dead — is still being actively debated inside the Beltway and at the highest levels of federal intelligence agencies. On the other hand, there is no strategic value for the United States in producing bin Laden's corpse for the masses, which would instantly turn him into an icon for potential jihadists everywhere, or even in pressing too hard for his capture, which would saddle Washington with responsibility for having him tried and still render him an icon. Given these realities, the best possible strategy for the Bush administration is the one it appears to be pursuing: to hand off responsibility for dealing with these issues to some other country. This leaves al Qaeda to grapple with the problem of having to prove bin Laden's continued existence — or else answer the question, which might begin to grow in the minds of its own global Islamist audience, of why he seemingly has abandoned the flock. Though we cannot state categorically that bin Laden is either alive or dead, the view that he may "be no more" has taken root within U.S. intelligence agencies, where officials note that the al Qaeda leader — whose health was questionable even before the Sept. 11 attacks — might have died from wounds sustained in the Afghanistan conflict, kidney failure or some other natural causes, or a combination of these factors. Access to quality medical care, including the dialysis machine we believe he needed, would be quite hard to come by while fleeing Predator drones and hiding in the caves of Tora Bora, even if doctors or medical supplies were available and could be retained for a price. Al Qaeda's own videotapes have borne witness to bin Laden's physical deterioration — or at least they did, until he stopped appearing in them about a year ago. The last seemingly fresh video footage of bin Laden was issued in September 2003, when he appeared noticeably gaunt while walking through a mountainous area with al-Zawahiri. In an audio tape accompanying that footage, the two men referred to the second anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. But bin Laden was not portrayed again on video until late October 2004
— and then in such apparent good health that the date of the footage was called into question.
Since the video of September 2003, al-Zawahiri has emerged as the most prominent figure in al Qaeda releases. Bin Laden's voice was heard on a handful of audio recordings, but even those have now fallen off: He last was known to speak in December 2004, praising an attack against the U.S. consulate in Jeddah that occurred Dec. 6. In reviewing the chronology of al Qaeda releases, it also is noteworthy that al-Zawahiri has begun exhorting followers during the past year to continue their jihad despite the fate of al Qaeda's leaders. In an audio issued Sept. 9, 2004, he states: "You, youth of Islam, this is our message: If we die or are detained, continue the path after us, and don't betray God and his prophet, and don't knowingly betray the trust." Less than a month later, in a video released Oct. 1, he repeated the message, saying, "If we are killed or taken prisoner, continue the path after us. . . . It's the era of Muslim resistance, after the [Arab] governments submitted to the Zionist occupant. We should learn the lessons of Chechnya, Afghanistan, of Iraq, of Palestine." Of course, such statements are entirely in keeping with al Qaeda's goal of sparking a grassroots movement
within the Muslim world. But given the other factors, there is the intriguing possibility that al-Zawahiri's remarks on death and capture were made at a time when bin Laden himself might have been dying nearby. Absent a body, there is plenty of room for speculation on such matters. But the facts are these:
- Bin Laden has not been known to move or speak since December 2004.
- He has been replaced in both video and audio recordings by al-Zawahiri, who has issued a handful of statements this year alone.
- No U.S. or foreign government agencies have claimed credit for bin Laden's death.
Having said that, we would argue that it is in al Qaeda's tactical interest to keep bin Laden "alive" in the public's mind — or at least not to acknowledge his unspectacular or completely natural death — since that ties up military and intelligence resources and diverts attention away from any operational planners who might still be capable of carrying out attacks. From the U.S. point of view, it must be remembered that intelligence agents are interrogating Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who served as bin Laden's chief tactical commander. Though he was captured in March 2003, he would be perhaps the best-positioned of all the al Qaeda operatives captured thus far to give reliable information about bin Laden's possible hideouts (though not, after so much time, the location of bin Laden himself). Every nook and cranny he could name in South Asia would be scoured by CIA shadow teams — but, so far, there is no reason to believe they have found anything. Now, it certainly is not beyond the realm of possibility that the United States actually did succeed, somehow, in killing bin Laden — perhaps with a missile fired from a Predator in Afghanistan — and the corpse, if it was ever found, might have been unrecognizable. Intriguingly, no one has claimed to have any forensic evidence that logically could be expected in such an event — which indicates to us that either no corpse was ever found or the forensic evidence was inconclusive. There is a third possible argument — that the government has conclusive evidence of bin Laden's demise and has somehow hushed it up — but we find this exceedingly difficult to believe. As anyone who has ever worked inside the Beltway can tell you, there are no secrets in Washington — and certainly none that juicy that could be kept quiet for long. Speaking from a purely domestic perspective, for the moment, there is nothing to stop the Bush administration from claiming at any time that bin Laden is dead, which would certainly score PR points with the public. But barring any forensic proof to back up its words, that would be a risky move. The White House already has a credibility problem, having claimed the existence of WMD in Iraq, and there would be no way to prevent anyone from whipping out some dated video footage of bin Laden that would make the administration look foolish. Given the number of American conspiracy theorists who argue that the United States attacked itself on Sept. 11, the question of who in the world would believe such a claim about bin Laden doesn't weigh favorably for the White House. Rather, logic argues that it is better, both strategically and tactically, to say nothing and allow perceptions to persist that bin Laden, terrorist mastermind and financier, is still "out there," rather than try to force a PR victory on the issue, even if that was the Bush administration's style. And there is no compelling reason for this president, who cannot seek re-election, to pander to the mercurial polls. Returning to the political exchanges now occurring in the media, we see new clues as to Washington's thinking. As we have noted, the Bush administration has been propping up the Pakistanis to take the lead in the hunt for bin Laden. Now, if Washington believes bin Laden to be alive and within reach, it would not trust the Pakistanis to lead the charge, nor would it share the most sensitive bits of intelligence on the matter even with allies. The Americans would go it alone — though they probably would not seek to leave the impression that they were ultimately responsible for bin Laden's demise, for the reasons noted above. However, if the Bush administration believes bin Laden is dead, thrusting responsibility for the search to Islamabad certainly doesn't hurt, and it provides several political dividends. For one thing, it keeps the heat on Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence to flush out other, less iconic al Qaeda leaders, but does not overtly humiliate Islamabad in the process. The ball, then, would seem to be in al Qaeda's court. Unless they can paint bin Laden as having been martyred by infidel Western forces, creating an icon around which the Islamist public can rally, it is in the group's interest to generate perceptions that bin Laden is alive as the titular leader of the vanguard jihadist movement. Al Qaeda is losing strength as a strategic force
, and being able to produce bin Laden might, on a psychological level, help buoy the movement. But the group has done nothing to enforce this perception in almost a year. The silence from Washington on bin Laden's fate is perfectly logical; why al Qaeda remains silent is a mystery.