"Watch out if you are over six feet tall. The CIA's Predator aircraft have been programmed to kill all those above six feet, hoping one of them would turn out to be bin Laden."
So said the graffiti in villages in the Pashtun tribal belt of Pakistan some months ago, reflecting the extent to which the US hunt for Osama bin Laden has become a butt of ridicule amongst the tribals.
Osama, Osama everywhere, yet nowhere to be found. The US has been desperately hunting for him ever since he reportedly escaped from the exotic-sounding Tora Bora caves of Afghanistan more than 18 months ago, injured and slightly incapacitated by a sharpnel, but alive and kicking.
So claimed his followers. His hand was felt, but not seen from Bali to Mombasa, from Riyadh to Casablanca. He has become like Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction (WMD). Feared, but not seen. Hunted relentlessly, but not found.
Offers of rewards of millions of dollars have not helped. Naturally, said an American intelligence analyst. The tribals are so poor and illiterate that they don't know what a million dollar reward is. If one offered them instead a plot of land or a few dozen goats they would join the hunt with gusto. So it was said.
And so it was done.
But without results. Neither dollars nor plots nor goats would interest the tribals. Why? The answer is simple, my dear Americans, wrote Mr.Afrasiab Khattak, a well-known Pashtun leader of the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP), in the Dawn of May 10, 2003. Osama is nowhere in the tribal belt, according to him. He wrote:
"The myth of no-man's land and the wild north-west comes quite handy as a spin and as a diversion when the Government fails to muster the required political will for taking the bull of terrorism right by the horns."
Gen.Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan's military dictator, has sent the Americans on a wild goose chase in the forbidding tribal land. "Osama can't be alive," he said last year. He always moved around with a large entourage to protect him. Even if one failed to notice him, one cannot fail to notice his retinue.
Now, tricky Mush, as his retired seniors in the Army used to call him, has a different spin. A spin a day is Musharraf's forte. He is alive, he admits, but in the no-go land of the Federally-Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), where no British soldier had ever gone and come back alive.
"We Pakistanis are of a different mettle," said the legendary commando. "We will go where no British dared. And we will find him dead or alive. " The Americans were duly impressed. Gave him another three billion dollars at Camp David.
Lollipops keep pouring into Pakistan in the expectation that Musharraf would help them rid the world of Osama and his terrorist hordes. Hasn't he already delivered nearly 500 Al Qaeda types?
What he did was to round up many poor Arabs living in Pakistan who had become a social pest and make them a charge on the US tax-payers' money. Only four, repeat four, Al Qaeda leaders of real consequence have been caught and handed over to the US. And that too, only after the US intelligence came to know of their sanctuaries in Pakistan and he had no other option but to arrest them.
Where were they found? asks the Pashtun leader. Abu Zubaidah in Faislabad in Pakistani Punjab;Ramzi Binalshibh and Waleed bin Attash in Karachi, Musharraf's home town after he migrated to Pakistan from India, and Khalid Sheikh Mohammad, the so-called master-mind of 9/11, in Rawalpindi, literally right under the bed of the Army and Musharraf. Nowhere in the tribal belt.
And in Karachi was harboured the injured Osama till August last year. In the Binori madrasa, which has produced more terrorists than all the other madrasas of Pakistan put together. That was the one place where Musharraf should have searched for him, if he was really sincere about wanting to help the US.
And that was one place where he did not search for him. Why? Because he knew Osama was there? And the Americans did not. After Osama knew that the US intelligence traced his presence in Tora Bora through his communications with his followers, he has totally stopped using modern means of communications.
After Binalshibh was caught in a different hide-out in Karachi in September last year, because he had indiscreetly used the telephone, Osama was whisked out of Binori and possibly Karachi.
Dead Or Alive?
Is Osama still alive or dead? If alive, where is he? There are only three who know the answers to these questions definitively. Allah, Musharraf and Lt.Gen.Ehsanul Haq, his hand-picked Director-General of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). It is the Pakistan Army and the ISI, who fathered not only the Taliban, but also the Al Qaeda.
Who says it? The Defence Intelligence Agency (DIA) of the Pentagon in its recently declassified post-9/11 documents. If Musharraf was really serious about helping the US, Osama would have been dead as a dodo by now or in Guantanamo Bay in Cuba.
Why doesn't tricky Mush arrest and hand him over to the US and get a few more billions of dollars? Because of a fear that he might spill the beans about his links with the ISI.
Why doesn't he get him killed and be rid of this nuisance? Because of a fear that Osama's terrorist hordes may no longer help him in India and Afghanistan. And an equally strong fear that Musharraf may lose his importance in the eyes of the US, if Osama and Al Qaeda were no longer there.
And Musharraf knows his Americans. How naive and trusting they can be. Didn't Ahmed Chalabi and other anti-Saddam money-makers make millions from the CIA and the DIA by feeding imaginary reports about Saddam's WMD and by telling US Vice-President Dick Cheney and Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld that the Iraqi people would welcome the US troops as liberators?
And since November last an oracle has been getting disseminated one tape after another purportedly of Osama and his No.2 Ayman al-Zawahiri. These tapes started coming out of Pakistan and reaching Al Jazeera and other Arab channels like rabbits out of a magician's hat.
Pictures without voice and voice without pictures. Pictures without dates. When were they taken? Nobody knows anything except what Al Jazeera claims. The voices at least refer to contemporaneous events, thereby indicating their recent origin.
Are the voices authentic? Most probably, says the US intelligence. But other voice experts in countries such as Switzerland doubt it. Al Jazeera itself has admitted that at least some of the tapes were handed over to its representative in Pakistan by unknown persons or transmitted from Pakistan through telephone. Surprising that the USA's National Security Agency, which taps all telephone communications in Pakistan, did not tap these.
Till February, the voice in these tapes, whether of Osama or his No.2, directed its anger only at Israel, the US and other Western countries. A tape of February attacked Pakistan for the first time, but not Musharraf, though a printed version of it denounced Musharraf too as Pakistan's Hamid Karzai. Two more in September have not only lambasted him personally, but also called for his overthrow.
It is intriguing that these personal attacks on Musharraf started appearing only after an increasing number of opinion-makers in the US began expressing their misgivings about Musharraf's sincerity as an ally in the war against the Al Qaeda and the Taliban.
Are these tapes -- at least some of them -- being fabricated and disseminated by the ISI at Musharraf's instance to warn the US that if it exercised too much pressure on him to act against the terrorists, he might be overthrown?
This is a suspicion, which is getting stronger and stronger.
B. Raman is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai, and Convenor, Advisory Committee, Observer Research Foundation (ORF), Chennai Chapter.