Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Osama bin where?

Ok, so it's a silly headline, but Osama bin Laden's name has been appearing more frequently in the media of late. There seems to be renewed focus on capturing or killing the man many in the west say is responsible for the deaths of over 3,000 people on September 11, 2001.

But where is he?

A Pakistani Taliban commander claimed that he had met with Bin Laden in Pakistan, but that he had fled the country once the Pakistani army began their anti-Taliban operation in South Waziristan in October.

Senior US officials seem to have no idea where he is.

One newspaper quoted Robert Gates, the US secretary of defence, about when the last time the US had good intelligence on the whereabouts of Osama. He was blunt: "I think it's been years."

On Sunday, the US announced it would seal the Pakistan-Afghan border to try and prevent attacks on the Pakistani side. It’s seen as a plan to try and get the world’s most wanted man.

The news was greeted with scepticism here in Pakistan. It’s almost impossible to seal the border. It's 1610 miles long.

I have criss-crossed the border on a number of occasions. Sometimes I have had to ask exactly which country I am in - it's just not clear where Pakistan begins and Afghanistan ends.

That's not to say the whole border is like that. The main crossing points into Pakistan are fairly well policed. On the Pakistani side, all that has really happened in the last 24 hours is that documents are being more thoroughly checked.

Durand line dispute

But there is another issue: The border is disputed by the Afghans. When the Durand line was created in 1893 by the then Foreign Secretary of British Colonial India Henry Mortimer Durand, it cut through a Pashtun ethnic area, dividing it in half. When Pakistan was created in 1947, the division was highlighted once more.

Today the Afghans do not accept the Durand line. They would like further clarity, saying the Pashtun areas of Pakistan belong to them. For Pakistan that means an entire Province, The North West frontier.

Pakistan accepts the Durand line as the de facto border between the two countries. The border itself is a mountainous terrain, and the passes can only be navigated by foot or by donkey.

It's here where the US - in its best estimation - thinks Bin Laden is hiding. He is said to go back and forth between the two countries. Bin Laden is said to have exploited the tensions between the two countries in a very smart way. By aligning himself with ethnic Pashtuns, he has been able to move freely and hide from prying eyes.

No one really knows how he manages his security. Some say he never stays anywhere more than one night, others claim that he is welcomed as a hero in any village he chooses to visit.

How he manages his security however almost does not matter however. What does matter is that he is still at large, and as long as he is, he represents a totem for international jihadis everywhere.

The Taliban issue

But will killing or capturing him make a difference to the crisis that Pakistan and Afghanistan face?

Not really. It's not al-Qaeda that is creating the biggest problem for both countries, it's the Taliban. In Afghanistan the Taliban are, according to some, moving away from supporting Al Qaeda, instead setting themselves up as a Pashtun fighting force.

A recent communiqué from the Taliban in Afghanistan suggested the group would not interfere with other countries if international troops left Afghanistan. The statement was seen as bold move by the Taliban that they are distancing themselves from Osama Bin Laden, who of course wants an international jihad.

In Pakistan, the Taliban are mounting ever more brazen attacks. Friday's attack on a mosque popular with some of Pakistan's most senior soldiers was seen as coup for the Taliban. It showed Pakistan that not even the army is safe in major cities.

What happens next is key.

If Osama is captured or killed, the Taliban will still be a force to be reckoned with. Neither Pakistan nor Afghanistan will become secure. But if you are the US government right now and you need something to that suggests your new AfPak strategy is working, then Bin Laden's head on a platter is looking like a good idea right about now.

Sadly, say many in Pakistan, Bin Laden's head will not make a difference for long term peace in the region.

- Source:

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