3 March 2004

The deal

"We've got to get Osama bin Laden, and we know where he is," the former senior intelligence official said. Osama bin Laden is "communicating through sigint " - talking on satellite telephones and the like - "and his wings have been clipped. He's in his own Alamo in northern Pakistan. It's a natural progress - whittling down alternative locations and then targeting him. This is not, in theory, a 'Let's go and hope' kind of thing. They've seen what they think is him." But the former official added that there were reasons to be cautious about such reports, especially given that bin Laden hasn't been seen for so long. Bin Laden would stand out because of his height; he is six feet five. But the target area is adjacent to Swat Valley, which is populated by a tribe of exceptionally tall people.

Two former C.I.A. operatives with firsthand knowledge of the PakistanAfghanistan border areas said that the American assault, if it did take place, would confront enormous logistical problems. "It's impenetrable," said Robert Baer, who visited the Hindu Kush area in the early nineties, before he was assigned to lead the C.I.A.'s anti-Saddam operations in northern Iraq. "There are no roads, and you can't get armor up there. This is where Alexander the Great lost an entire division. The Russians didn't even bother to go up there. Everybody's got a gun. That area is worse than Iraq." Milton Bearden, who ran the C.I.A.'s operations in Afghanistan during the war with the Soviet Union, recounted, "I've been all through there. The Pashtun population in that belt has lived there longer than almost any other ethnic group has lived anywhere on earth." He said, "Our intelligence has got to be better than it's been. Anytime we go into something driven entirely by electoral politics, it doesn't work out."

The deal is what allowed Pakistan to get away with denouncing and then pardoning their chief nuclear scientist for proliferation technologies to (among others) Libya and Iran. Of course, there is zero possibility that the scientist was not acting under the direction of Pakistan's governmental and military authorities including the shocked (shocked, I tell you) Musharraf.

And who outed Pakistan? Libya had been seeking an opening to the West for years and had got nowhere. But now that there's a War on Terror and Libya is ready to finger Pakistan as source of much of its nuclear program? Hey presto, the War on Terror has another triumph.

That is partly true. If the Bush administration were not so desperate for electoral success they would not have accepted Libya's status as a new tetrarchate, nor would they have let Pakistan (another tetrarchate) get away with blaming everything on its scientist. But by doing both, the White House thinks it has a chance at bin Laden. And an October surprise. The lack of military planning and the disregard for area specialists mark this as a classic Bush machination.

The benefit is that Bush may get his October surprise. And the cost the world faces is just a little more nuclear proliferation.

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