The Osama I remember

Trying to capture the al-Qaeda leader was like chasing a shadow as he faded into the vast Afghan landscape to evade detection.

Within years after Russian forces invaded Afghanistan in 1979, the US and Saudi Arabia sent in billions of dollars to help the mujahideen, or holy warriors, in their uphill struggle against Russian forces. As the battles for control of Afghanistan got under way, thousands of Arab and other foreign volunteers made a beeline for Pakistan to join the Afghan mujahideen and cross into Afghanistan to wage jihad against the brutal occupation of Afghanistan.

Among them was one man named Osama bin Laden, a Saudi billionaire who chose a simple life and felt comfortable in the barren but beautiful landscape of Afghanistan with its vast deserts that probably brought memories of home in Saudi Arabia. Even there according to his friends he would disappear into the desert and find time for contemplation. With so many fighters from such far-away lands, Osama blended in just like any ordinary fighter and most people who met him just called him Osama by his first name and not by his titles.

Humble and soft-spoken, he was able to blend into a culture of hospitality. An Afghan guide who had himself fought the war in Afghanistan and knew Osama well told me if Osama was to walk down the street, hardly anyone would even notice.

After almost 10 long years the Russians withdrew from Afghanistan and the country plunged into civil war. Many Arab fighters who had fought alongside their Afghan mujahideen went back to their countries. Others who were now wanted by the regimes in their own countries decided to settle down in Afghanistan and in Pakistan. But Osama returned home to a hero’s welcome. Even though Yemeni by decent the bin Laden family had already made their billions and were accepted as Saudi citizens with close ties to the ruling family.

Back to Afghanistan

Within a few years Iraqi forces invaded Kuwait and the Americans warned Saudi Arabia they may be next. The Americans showed their worried Saudi partners satellite images to convince the Saudis that Iraq was massing troops along its border and planning to invade the oil-rich kingdom. The prospect of American forces on Saudi soil was unacceptable to Osama who argued that his Afghan-trained friends would be enough to stop an Iraqi invasion.

He argued that the American presence on the Holy Land would be unacceptable. But such talk was not going down well in the royal family and with tensions running high over this contentious issue the Saudi intelligence chief advised Osama to leave the country. Paying heed to the advice Osama left for Sudan but even there the pressure from the Americans was unrelenting and Osama used his strong Afghan contacts to return to that country.

President Burhanuddin Rabbani was happy to welcome him. With Osama’s wealth and influence he would be a welcome prospect. AC130 aircraft carrying his family and himself landed in Afghanistan and Osama decided to stay at Farmadda near Jalalabad in a heavily fortified area also home to the legendary Afghan commander Younis Khalis. When the Taliban took over Jalabad , Osama decided to join them and Mullah Omar sent in an aircraft to bring Osama and his family to Kandahar.

The Taliban were afraid that sooner or later they would be sucked into a confrontation with the Americans over Osama who was alleged to be masterminding a global war against the US and its allies. The world was obsessed with Osama and I was certainly not going to take a back seat as I packed my bags and left for Afghanistan in 1998, just after a massive cruise missile attack failed to kill Osama.

Communications cut

The Taliban slammed the doors for all foreign media after the incident but I got a lucky break when I obtained a visa and embarked on my journey into Afghanistan, now cut off from the outside world and a place where the only window of communications was a satellite phone and the only news of the outside world was through the radio waves as most Afghans kept their small pocket radios close to their ears.

After the attack the Taliban forbade Osama to maintain any communications links and he was made incommunicado for several months as he faded into the vast Afghan landscape to evade detection. He never stayed put at one static location for more than a few hours, the time it took for the missiles to reach him from the warm waters of the Arabian Sea. From then on it was like chasing a shadow. A game of cat and mouse.
As I settled in Kandahar the city was almost in ruins and as the evening sun went down, convoys of Toyota 4-wheel drives with darkened windows came into the city from deep inside the Registan desert to replenish their supplies. Their leader was constantly on the move and even the governors of the provinces were not aware that he was in their territory. Only a handful of top Taliban leaders maintained communications through notes and messages through couriers.

Many Taliban leaders, though acknowledging Osama’s heroic role in their fight against the Russian occupations, were also aware that Osama’s presence in their country would complicate matters for their rule and have implications for Afghanistan.

For some time even the Taliban themselves acknowledged that they had briefly lost track of the man. For Osama the world had finally shrunk and he was confined to Afghanistan. Even though it was a difficult if not impossible task, Osama was able to use his vast knowledge of the country to evade detection.

The Americans were now threatening military action if the Taliban did not hand over Osama but the Taliban told everyone point blank that they did not trust the Americans to give bin Laden justice and that he must be tried under Islamic Law. The two countries did not have an extradition treaty according. As diplomacy assumed a new sense of urgency the Saudi intelligence chief flew into Kandhar airport to meet the supreme Taliban commander Mullah Omar.

The meeting got off to a bad start when the Saudi intelligence chief took strong exception to remarks about the Saudi judicial system. He was furious and Mullah Omar went out of the meeting to douse himself with some cool water from and earthen terracotta Jar known locally as the Mangay. The Saudi intelligence chief abruptly left for the airport and without the official entourage of security. The Saudis had had enough and they were not willing to risk their relationship with the Americans over Osama. Now they had made up their mind to cut ties with the Taliban.

Quiet before the storm

A lull ensued and I too found time to indulge in the afternoon luxury and always lacking in our jobs to take time out for siesta. But as the hot blazing sun became more bearable in the early evening a cool breeze began to blow and turn the night into one dazzling show of milky way. Everyone knew it was the quiet before the storm. Osama was now even more elusive and was seldom seen in public. But his fighters were already making plans of resisting and fighting a long war against the Americans.

What took years to transpire now seemed to be happening in a matter of months if not weeks and no one could anticipate the events about to be unleashed. On September 9 al-Qaeeda was able to kill Ahmad Shah Masood and the Taliban were ready to launch their final push against the Northern Alliance. But within 48 hours 9/11 happened and the focus of the entire world turned to Afghanistan. It was just a matter of time before the Americans unleashed their fury over this landlocked country. With the entire world media already in Kabul to cover another story were told to get out of the city.

Like us Osama and his fighters were aslo now moving their fighters from the south to the east through Kabul. As we arrived in Jalllabad at the Spin Ghar hotel built in better days we soon saw the al-Qaeeda fighters come into the hotel. They were on the move and it was clear that after grouping here they were already planning to go to Tora Bora where they would dig in for the long haul an use the tunnels to stand a chance against the heavy bombardment.

As I left for Pakistan through the border escorted by an intelligence official who wanted to ensure that I left the country the Arab fighters had already abandoned their 4-wheel drives on the dry river beds at the foothills of the Tora Bora Mountains.

Ramadan was approaching and the Pakistani government requested the Americans to halt operation in reverence for Ramadan but the US was in no mood to halt the bombardment. As the night set in the women dressed their children in new clothes telling them they may be martyred . Wave after wave of B52 bombers dropped their heavy payload over the Tora Bora mountains as the aircraft emptied their payload of bunker busters and even daisy cutters.

The US asked al-Qaeda fighters to surrender and they took the opportunity to prepare for an escape. Some of the wounded and elderly decided to turn themselves in and help others including Osama to escape. After a daring getaway  Osama faded away into the Tora Bora Mountains and was said to have gone for higher elevations and to places where the dense foliage of the juniper and pine trees offered them visual detection from aircraft or satellite reconnaissance. A group of hardcore fighters decided to take their chances across the border in Pakistan and crossed into Parachinar in Kurrum agency along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.

Rumours emerging

The tribal areas were now closed completely and no one was able to get in let alone take a camera.

Since I had already entered the tribal area after using my connections I was able to climb one of the high positions of the army, now dressed in all white snow fatigues and manning positions. I could see it would not be an easy task. Almost every day they exchanged fire with fighters who were trying to probe for a crossing point. While some were able to do so by using the cover of darkness others decided to travel along the frontier on the Afghan side to find their way into the provinces of Kunar and Nuristan.

For months no one heard anything about Osama and rumours began to circulate that he had been killed during the bombardment of Tora Bora. The US led coalition forces even dug out the dead from the fresh graves to carry out DNA tests with the hope of confirming their kill. Then as expected the world saw the first images of Osama proving to the world he was alive and well and still defiant to wage his war against the US and its allies.

From then on Osama chose to say in deep cover except issuing a video or audio tape periodically telling his fighters to rise against the tyranny of Arab regimes and against the US. He had a heavy price over his head and it was a matter of time before the world would finally know what happened to the number one most wanted man by US. All kinds of speculation emerged, some even suggesting that Osama had kidney problems and needed dialysis.As such they argued he may have died already. Who was to arrange a portable machine for him and who would give him the needed help in treatment? Questions no one had any definitive answers to.

With the war in Afghanistan becoming a stalemate the Americans hurled accusations that Osama was planning his next attack against the US from the Pakistani tribal areas. Pakistan told the Americans they had no evidence to suggest it was true but that was not enough as the Americans unleashed a wave of attacks on the tribal territories under the pretext that this was al-Qaeda’s stronghold. In the ensuing attacks which have continued to date with the drone strikes thousands of people lost their lives including innocent ordinary civilians, women and children.

The Americans continued to insist that al-Qaeda was well entrenched in Pakistan’s tribal areas and Pakistan continued to insist that there was no actionable intelligencefor them to act on.

With the Taliban getting stronger in Afghanistan the Americans were confronted with a stalemate and as they prepared for their withdrawal in July this year the pressure on Pakistan increased as its tribal belt came under an unrelenting wave after wave of drone strikes. Even the military chief was forced to condemn these attacks. The US also increased pressure on Pakistan to allow boots on the ground and cross-border incursions and hot pursuit but the Pakistani military would have none of it.

Accomplice or Incompetent?

The attack on Osama deep inside Pakistan shocked everyone in Pakistan.

The prime minister congratulated the US for getting their most wanted man but did not stop to think what damage it had done to the prestige of Pakistan’s ailing political democracy. The Americans didn’t just kill Osama but also the myth that Pakistan’s defences were impenetrable. People were no longer worried about Osama. They may had sympathy for the man but no one was willing to come out and die for him, at least not the masses.

Operation Geronimo was a smashing success for the Americans but it left the Pakistani establishment to lick its wounds. What they did not want to answer was the question from the Americans: Was Pakistan and Accomplice or Incompetent?. The foreign secretary of Pakistan on the other hand bent backwards to say that despite the CIA chiefs remarks he held the man in high esteem.

Over a week since the incident no one in high office wanted to say anything, neither the prime minister who was more concerned about talking about his trip to Paris, nor the president was willing to tell an embarrassed nation of what happened and why and who was in the end responsible. They were equally dismayed to find that the Americans were already warning of more such attacks. The US may have killed the man Osama bin Laden but it will take decades for people to forget the myths surrounding him about how he left the luxuries of modern life and settled instead for the barren and badly battered landscape of Afghanistan.