PARIS – Osama bin Laden is here, there and everywhere. For Russian intelligence, he is in the Pankisi Gorge, in northeastern Georgia, not far from the Chechen border, alongside a clutch of al-Qaeda operatives.
In European diplomatic circles he is said to be in north Yemen, close to the Saudi border. For Pakistani intelligence, he is already inside Iraq, after previously being sheltered by anti-Tehran Sunni mujahideen in southeast Iran.
And during the recent carnival in Brazil’s steamy Rio de Janeiro, bin Laden was everywhere: on the beach, in the streets, drinking beer or champagne and dancing till dawn in clubs around town – bin Laden’s was the best-selling carnival mask in the swinging city. This even prompted an Asian-style counterfeit industry: you could buy the genuine article for about US$4, complete with white turban, or a plastic fake for little more than a dollar. There were few takers for the mask of US President George W. Bush.
As bin Laden’s whereabouts are still the main plot in the ongoing No. 1 global soap opera, an increasingly infuriated Pentagon is busy planning its new war of disinformation – supposedly to win back public support around the world for America’s war on terrorism. It is widely assumed that these plans were leaked by reticent Pentagon officials – just as Bush was in the middle of his Asian trip to Japan, South Korea and China last week, justifying his “axis of evil” theory while at the same time being heavily criticized in Europe for his unilateralist stance and the Pentagon’s treatment of the “non-prisoners of war” Taliban in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
The de facto prisoners come from 32 different countries. French sources have already identified five Britons, six Kuwaitis, one Australian, 32 Yemenis, two Frenchmen, four claiming to be French, at least one Spaniard and “more than a hundred” Saudis – according to Saudi authorities. American Taliban John Walker has been transferred to the US, he has been formally charged, he has lawyers and he knows when he will appear in court (August 28).
On the other hand, all of the other Taliban barely survive in a huge cage, cannot talk to anybody, have no idea about the charges that they face, and no idea of when, if ever, they will be brought to trial.
The new American war of disinformation was expected to be promoted by the Office of Strategic Influence (OSI) – set up in full secrecy last November during the New Afghan War, and directed by an air force general, Simon Worden. The OSI was to be the body to decide who should be disinformed, and about what. The main candidates were the foreign media. But there was a snag: this would include leading news agencies such as British Reuters and Agence France-Presse, which could pass on the lies to the US press as well.
When they learned about the OSI, diplomats in Europe immediately started asking themselves how they could trust a government that would let its military lie about anything, not only to their enemies but also to their allies.
And then, suddenly, at the beginning of this week, the OSI was in effect axed. US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld had earlier claimed during a talk show that he had learned about the OSI’s plans by reading a leaked report in the New York Times. And Bush revealed himself to be outraged. Both the Pentagon and the White House retreated en masse, and some poor low-level officials will take the blame for the whole episode.
A number of Orwellian scenarios can be drawn on how could the Pentagon expect to win a planetary battle for hearts and minds by disseminating well-crafted lies to selected foreign media and world leaders.
In the Middle East, Washington’s credibility would not exactly be enhanced by this – at a time when Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon had been taking extreme care to blend Yasser Arafat with Osama bin Laden. For most of the Arab world, Washington’s unwavering support of Sharon equals almost zero credibility already.
In Europe, the feeling is that “strategic influence” – through the OSI and otherwise – won’t be able to influence much unless there’s a radical change in US policy. French Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine echoes the perception of his colleagues when he says that “George W. Bush has the power to impose a peace settlement in the Middle East.” The feeling in Europe is that Washington does not need any lies disguised as “strategic influence” if it wants to be a real peace broker in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, or if it wants to set up a real international coalition to get rid of Iraq’s Saddam Hussein. Essentially, for Europe, US unilateralism plus strategic influence is a recipe for disaster.
The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) would not be very helpful in this new war of disinformation either. The agency has just “discovered” that Afghanistan could be on the way to a new civil war, although “not imminent.” It does not take all the fabulous CIA resources to learn on the ground that: 1) Afghan warlords will never accept peace; 2) the Taliban, sheltered in Pakistan’s tribal areas, are just waiting for spring to start their guerrilla offensive; and 3) you cannot set up a national army in a country still devastated by an inter-ethnic war.
Intellectuals from the Afghan diaspora based in Europe are keen to confirm that interim leader Hamid Karzai is incapable of maintaining control of the country. There’s an absolute security black void in Afghanistan. When Karzai went to Washington, he begged Bush for an expanded role of the International Security Force – especially in strategic cities such as Herat, Mazar-i-Sharif, Kandahar and Jalalabad. But the Pentagon is adamant: the only solution is the – very slow – buildup of a national army.
Both the CIA and the Pentagon, though, could learn a lot in terms of disinformation from the Israeli intelligence service.
Washington’s hawks have always thought that Iran remained a formidable obstacle to US strategic designs in the Gulf and Central Asia. In the geopolitics of the region, Iran is the only country that has been capable of facing Israel. Iran has a strategic alliance with Syria. Iran helps the Lebanese Hezbollah. Iran has been operating a slowly-but-surely opening toward Saudi Arabia. And Iran – alongside Syria – has been making overtures toward Iraq.
No wonder Israel went into panic mode: its ultimate nightmare would be to face a powerful eastern front of Syria, Iran and Iraq. Israel acted swiftly. More than preventing the buildup of this hostile eastern front, the immediate aim was to convince Washington that Tehran sooner rather than later could have its own ballistic missiles – pointed toward Israel – and without running the risk of any US punishment.
The subsequent disinformation campaign strategy was two-pronged. First, according to Israeli sources, supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and his Iranian hawks had made a secret deal with the al-Qaeda leadership: they offered bin Laden, Taliban leader Mullah Omar and senior al-Qaeda members refuge in Iran. There’s absolutely no proof that this happened. Asia Times Online has learned that bin Laden and al-Qaeda members may have crossed to southeastern Iran through Helmand province in Afghanistan, but they would have been protected by Sunni mujahideen extremely hostile to the Shi’ite leadership in Tehran.
The second part of the disinformation campaign was centered on a ship intercepted by Israeli commandos in the Red Sea late last year that was said to be transporting 50 tonnes of Iranian arms to the Palestinian Authority. Consequently, Tehran and Arafat were duly condemned by Israel as extremely dangerous.
No one in Europe seriously believes anything about this murky affair: there is a widespread consensus this was a Mossad operation designed to isolate both Iran and the Palestinian Authority from Washington.
But it can now be seen that this two-pronged Israeli disinformation campaign was effective. Iran is now an official member of the “axis of evil” (with Iraq and North Korea). This demonization suits US plans of being the main external power influencing Afghanistan – preferably without any role whatsoever for either Iran or Russia. And of course Tehran is a direct economic (Pipelineistan) and geopolitical competitor of Washington in the Caucasus as well as in Central Asia.
But Iran simply cannot be isolated from Afghanistan. Hamid Karzai himself expressly went to Tehran to thank Iranians, in Farsi, and in front of the whole parliament, for their help “for more than two decades,” while also praising the “Islamic solidarity” between the two countries and their Persian “common culture.”
There are more than 2 million Afghan refugees in Iran – including a substantial part of the intellectual elite. Iran pledged US$560 million in five years for the reconstruction of Afghanistan – much more, proportionally, than the US.
Meanwhile, bin Laden and the al-Qaeda leadership remain on the loose. Bin Laden may be in Georgia, in Yemen, in Iraq, in Rio … for the Russians, it’s safe to place him in Georgia – an extra reason for Moscow to increase its military pressure on Chechnya. For the Pakistanis, it is safe to place him in Iraq, and so relieve the pressure from the fact that in truth the Taliban and al-Qaeda structures are practically intact inside Pakistan.
But wherever he is, one thing is certain: not even George Orwell would divine how these clashing disinformation campaigns can provide “strategic influence” to any of the players involved.