NEW YORK-It has been 1,352 days since George W. Bush promised to find Osama bin Laden, "dead or alive." So where is he?
"Not around Afghanistan," U.S.-installed President Hamid Karzai said on May 25. "We'll catch him if he ever comes in here." If not Afghanistan, where? "Well, that we don't know." Pakistani Foreign Minister Kursheed Kasuri says: "[He] is alive and moving around from place to place, but not with a large group of people." Thank you, great oracle. Such helpful allies we have.
"It (the search for bin Laden) has not gone into cold storage," swears British envoy to Pakistan Mark Lyall Grant, but it's hard to avoid drawing one of two conclusions at this late date: Either the Bushies are too stupid to catch bin Laden or they're not really trying. Capturing him alive, after all, could lead to discomfiting revelations-from interesting info regarding Reagan's Stinger missile giveaways to reports that a CIA agent hung out with the suspect of the 1998 East Africa embassy bombings weeks before 9/11.
If the United States government were to devote its full attention and resources to the hunt, it would capture Osama. Low manpower and financing equals low priority. But the 3,000 people who died that day cry out for justice. The American people deserve answers-answers that, guilty or innocent, bin Laden should provide under oath. We know Bush doesn't want to catch Osama. "I don't know where he is," Bush said in 2002. "I'll repeat what I said. I truly am not that concerned about him." The question is: are we?
Bin Laden moved into Tarnak Farm, a compound of 80 mud-brick buildings four miles south of the Kandahar airport in Afghanistan, after arriving under U.S. supervision from Sudan in 1996. Video from a U.S. Predator drone plane places him there as of the fall of 2000. "Bin Laden is 6-foot-5," reported NBC. "The man in the video clearly towers over those around him and seems to be treated with great deference."
Most Americans believe that our first military response to the attacks in New York and Washington-invading Afghanistan-was part of an attempt to capture Osama "dead or alive." Actually the war had nothing to do with bin Laden, who wasn't even in Afghanistan on 9/11. On January 28, 2002, CBS reported: "The night before the September 11 terrorist attack, Osama bin Laden was in Pakistan. He was getting medical treatment ... Pakistan intelligence sources tell CBS News that bin Laden was spirited into this military hospital in Rawalpindi for kidney dialysis treatment."
White House officials have never denied this report.
If 150,000 American troops haven't been enough to subdue Iraq, the 800 sent to Afghanistan-a mountainous country of similar size and population-were a sad joke of a posse hunting for someone who wasn't there to be found. And Bush knew that. Then-Secretary of State Colin Powell's initial request for extradition was issued to Pakistan on 9/12. Only later, when neoconservative Cabinet members like Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld won a high-level internal debate over what to do about 9/11, was the hunt for Osama back-burnered in favor of the Afghan war of distraction.
Pakistan closed its border with Afghanistan on September 17. It's unlikely that bin Laden would have tried to return to Afghanistan, which everyone knew was about to be bombed and probably invaded, during that five-day window of opportunity. The main border crossing via the Khyber Pass would have been indiscreet and distant from the Taliban's safe haven around Kandahar. It's even more of a stretch to believe that Osama, still afflicted with a bum kidney, would have trekked by horseback over the rugged mountains of the Northwest Frontier Province after that date. Odds are that, at least for the time being, bin Laden remained in Pakistan.
U.S. state-controlled media put bin Laden in a redoubt in the mountains of Tora Bora, a stone's throw west of the Khyber Pass, in mid-November 2001. According to this official account, corrupt Eastern Shura militia let bin Laden and hundreds of other al-Qaeda fighters escape. "There were only 21 bedraggled al-Qaeda fighters who were taken prisoners," writes the Christian Science Monitor.
Neither the Talibs nor Northern Alliance sources I spoke with while covering the war in Afghanistan in November 2001 put much credence in the Tora Bora story. "Everyone knows Osama went to Kashmir," an al-Qaeda POW told me. "He took the road north from Rawalpindi. That's where they always go."
Indeed, Pakistani-controlled Kashmir is topographically and politically more hospitable to bin Laden than the Pakistani-Afghan frontier regions targeted by joint U.S.-Pakistani military operations since 2002. Massive, craggy mountains separate bandit-ridden canyons where road signs mark routine ambush points. Tribal authorities allied with exiled Talibs fighting a proxy border war against India operate with so much impunity that recruiting centers for al-Qaeda and other "banned" Islamist parties operate openly out of storefronts. Pakistani troops rarely venture into the "Northern Areas"-not that their pro-Taliban officer corps would order them to do so. For these reasons, Islamist militants fleeing eastern Afghanistan traditionally leave via Kashmir.
Of course bin Laden may have chartered a plane from Kashmir-to Yemen or elsewhere. But if I were hunting for Osama, I'd start there. If I were serious.