S. Azmat Hassan, a former Pakistani diplomat, is now a professor at Seton Hall University. He writes about the unending search for Osama bin Laden and why the U.S. should shift its strategy.
The month of October marks the eighth anniversary of the war in Afghanistan. It is now over eight years since the Bush administration successfully removed the Taliban regime from power in Kabul. But there was a crucial difference between the US eviction of Saddam from Kuwait and forcible regime change in Afghanistan.
In the former case the U.S. led coalition made sure that the Iraqi Army was destroyed. In the case of the Taliban many of their soldiers were allowed to escape to the Taliban stronghold of Kandahar. Inexplicably, they were not pursued and neutralized. The Taliban lived to fight another day, and today they have regrouped to become a formidable fighting force.
Similarly, Osama bin Laden, who was virtually trapped in the Tora Bora Mountains in eastern Afghanistan, eluded capture. His whereabouts have remained unknown despite the millions of dollars spent on the largest manhunt in history. A FBI reward promising $25 million for information leading to his arrest has also proved unavailing so far. More pertinent I believe is the question: how relevant is bin Laden to America’s security concerns?
Bin Laden’s views may still appeal to a scattered following in Yemen, Somalia, parts of North Africa and elsewhere, but his ability to energize a vast multitude of Muslims to fight America seems to have been seriously compromised.
So the time has probably come to lessen our morbid fascination with the man. The Taliban leadership in Afghanistan may have already written him off as a credible ally. Instead of continuing to expend resources and efforts to find Bin Laden, it may be better for the US to reach out to elements among the Afghan Taliban.The attempt should be to wean them away from the diehard elements around Mullah Omar.
This effort would require, in security expert Bruce Hoffman’s words, “intelligence on the ground.” Do the U.S. and NATO have enough Pashto-speaking operatives deployed in Afghanistan to accomplish this task? If the Taliban commanders can be assured of a power sharing arrangement in the Afghan government, the present fraught situation in Afghanistan could conceivably take a turn for the better.
The Pashtun tribesmen do not form a monolithic bloc. It is military confrontation by the US that unites them against what they perceive to be a foreign military occupying their land. If they see the prospect of an end to the Afghan war through co-optation in the Afghan government, they may be willing to lay down their weapons.
I believe it is desirable to explore this option to end a ruinous war which if pursued militarily alone, could last indefinitely. This prospect would not be in the interest of any of the principal actors. It would probably engender more turmoil, more bloodshed and more agony in that region, with ominous consequences for all.