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The Hunt for Osama -- Version 2.006

by Steven D Tue May 16th, 2006 at 11:19:24 AM EST

Another American election year is at hand, so it must be time to ramp up our efforts to capture Osama bin Ladin once again.  Or at least that's what the Asia Times is reporting today as it's top story:

Osama back in the US crosshairs

By Syed Saleem Shahzad

[...] Asia Times Online investigations, after a harrowing journey to some of the most inhospitable territory in the Hindu Kush mountains, confirm that US and Pakistan forces are now preparing for a large-scale operation to track down bin Laden, or other big fish, on whichever side of the border they might be.

The focal point in the "war on terror" has thus firmly shifted to the maze of mountains and rivers that stretches from remote Chitral in the northwest of Pakistan's North West Frontier province to Nuristan and Kunar provinces in Afghanistan.

(Continued below the fold)

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You might remember that Bush administration officials hyped the capture of a significant Al Qaida figures throughout 2004. In January it was Shammin Ahmed,, leader of an alleged Al Qaida affiliate.  In March, they told us Al Zawahiri, Osama's right hand man, was supposedly "surrounded" and his capture imminent.

Then in late July, right before the Democratic National Convention, there was the the well ballyhooed capture of Muhammad Naeem Noor Khan, supposedly an Al Qaida mastermind.  Unfortunately, we know know that the premature disclosure of Khan's arrest by American officials prevented UK security forces from rolling up all the Al Qaida terrorist cells operating in Britain.  As a result, British security was unable to prevent the subsequent terrorist bomb attacks in the London Underground less than a year later in July, 2005.  An extreme example of either American incompetence or the misuse of sensitive information for political gain, but at the time it was hyped as a major coup in Bush's War on Terror, and helped take the spotlight off John Kerry and the Democrats.

Yet despite the Bush administration's pressure on Pakistan to come up with the "big fish" during the 2004 Presidential campaign, Osama still manged to elude capture, and even taunt Americans in a videotape released just days before the November 2nd election.

Since Bush's reelection, Osama has seemingly fallen off America's radar screen, as the war in Iraq, consistently promoted by Bush as the "Central front in the War on Terror" took center stage.  Aside from brief upsurges of interest around the times of the London bombings, and whenever he or Zawahiri would choose to release another audiotape to the Arab media, he became mostly a forgotten man in the eyes of the American press, and, more importantly, in the official statements by Bush and other prominent administration officials.  They mention "9/11" and "terrorists" and even "Zarqawi," the supposed Iraqi Al Qaida mastermind, quite frequently, but direct references to Osama bin Ladin by them are few and far between.

However, if the Asia Times report is correct, that might all be about to change, just in time for the 2006 mid-term elections:

The presence of Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) agents in the Chitral Valley has been the subject of much discussion recently. From the chief minister of the province to the man in the street, the word is that the Americans have established a vigilance center in Chitral town after what is said to be a "credible" tip-off of al-Qaeda activity in the region.

There has been no official word from the United States on the speculation of a FBI presence, but feedback gathered by Asia Times Online from various quarters confirms frequent visits by Americans to the Chitral Valley recently. At the same time, there is an extraordinary large presence of Pakistani security forces all along the border area, especially near Arandu, armed with heavy weapons.

Of course any offensive to locate and capture the mysterious and evasive Al Qaida leader would be met with significant local opposition.  It would likely not be a simple "snatch and grab" operation, in no small part to a resurgence of Taliban influence in the very region where this supposed action is scheduled to take place.

Asia Times Online learned that local support, after being neutral for some time, is now in favor of the Taliban and al-Qaeda, which have comfortable places to hide and carry out random attacks at their convenience. [...]

The situation on the east remains in this state of balance, with the Taliban and some al-Qaeda operatives well bedded with a sympathetic local population, but in essence lying low.

A massive operation, such as one in search of the elusive bin Laden, could ignite the tinder, and open up another front, as in the south of the country. All the pieces are already in place.

Do we have enough troops to finally take down bin Ladin, and will our putative allies in the region, the Afghan and Pakistani armies provide adequate support for our efforts to be successful?  These are questions to which no one can be certain of the answers.  But one thing seems clear.  Bush is badly in need of the boost to his approval ratings that the capture or confirmed death of Osama bin Ladin would bring.  I therefore expect to be hearing more from Bush about this effort to get Osama in the months ahead.


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