ISLAMABAD – Osama bin Laden still has not been captured – dead or alive. The al-Qaeda leadership still has not been captured – dead or alive. They are hiding “somewhere in Pakistan,” as Taliban-linked sources once more reassured Asia Times Online. Invisible as ghosts, bin Laden and al-Qaeda remain nonetheless undisputed world champions in the media sweepstakes.

The renewed marketing war on how best to demonize bin Laden and al-Qaeda is already in full swing – with three weeks to go before September 11’s first anniversary. It’s no coincidence that corporate behemoth AOL Time Warner Inc – via its CNN branch – has decided to broadcast its extensive, recently acquired al-Qaeda video library. And so much for CIA “intelligence” on the ground. All it takes is a single resourceful Afghan fixer to find precious al-Qaeda-related information. This is how CNN discovered what it qualifies as “terror on tape.”

CNN’s editing of the al-Qaeda video library is a sensationalist pearl capable of putting to shame the antics of rival News Corp’s Fox News. There’s absolutely no effort to put anything into context or to analyze the causes of al-Qaeda’s “hatred” and “brutality.” Peter Bergen, former journalist converted into CNN’s sole expert on terror, is all the expertise allowed into the mix. Independent analysts would probably ask too many questions – and would be edited out anyway.

Viewers worldwide watched a poor dog dying from the effects of a sinister boiling liquid, and endured specialists talking about the horrors of chemical weapons – major producers of which, incidentally, are the US. And suddenly, right on cue, came another breaking news report: “White House considering attack on suspected al-Qaeda chemical and biological weapons test facility in Iraq.” The frantic search for a “smoking gun” linking Iraq and al-Qaeda had materialized right there on the screen. The attack was cancelled, but if carried out the end result might have emulated the bombing of the pharmaceutical plant in Khartoum, Sudan, ordered by Bill Clinton in 1998. This was a civilian, not a military plant. Dozens of Sudanese civilians were killed.

Lieutenant-General Dan McNeill, the commander of the coalition forces in Bagram air base, Afghanistan, says that there are now “hundreds” of al-Qaeda in Pakistan, “maybe even a thousand.” Pakistani Interior Minister Moinuddin Haider says that “al-Qaeda is not in Pakistan but in Afghanistan.” Moin insists that the few al-Qaeda members in Pakistan have already been rounded up. This is exactly what President General Pervez Musharraf said in the beginning of August: around 300 al-Qaeda had been rounded up since last December.

Contrary to US military perceptions, Musharraf is convinced that al-Qaeda is regrouping in Afghanistan, not Pakistan – because the US military and Hamid Karzai’s government in Kabul have been consistently unable to establish any kind of control outside of the capital. But Musharraf is prepared to accept that maybe bin Laden and Taliban spiritual leader Mullah Omar could be hiding in Pakistan’s tribal areas. Taliban-linked sources reconfirmed to Asia Times Online that Mullah Omar is still safely guarded in the mountains of Uruzgan province, protected by local warlords, which could have been paid at least US$500,000. And a mix of European intelligence and Taliban-related sources swear that bin Laden is “invisible” and in disguise somewhere in a big Pakistani urban center. Musharraf totally disagrees. He does not believe that bin Laden could have possibly found a sanctuary inside Pakistan: “He must be moving with 100 to 200 people around him to give him all the protection … such a large group would not be able to hide in Pakistan.”

McNeill seems to be much closer to the actual picture than Moin. With the help of intelligence-related sources in Karachi and Islamabad, Asia Times Online has ascertained that there is only one active al-Qaeda cell in Pakistan – in Karachi – but several dormant cells are spread all over the country.

Intelligence sources concede that al-Qaeda’s structure is now so diffuse it is virtually impossible to track. These sources estimate the number of active al-Qaeda members in Pakistan between 300 and 400. That includes 24 crucial individuals – al-Qaeda top planners who recently arrived from Dubai with a special mission: prepare the killing of Musharraf, working through a chain of events where each one detonates the next. No intelligence sources can tell from where these planners are operating.

Musharraf is undeniably the number one name on al-Qaeda’s blacklist, but its operatives will not be getting direct help from outlawed jihadi groups such as the Harakut-ul-Mujahedeen, Jaish-e-Mohammad and Lashkar-e-Jangvi. Even before September 11, these groups decided at a summit meeting not to attack the Pakistani government – whatever its policies. The directive has not been changed: the dirty terrorist work in these past few months is being conducted by splinter groups.

“Terror” in Pakistan has just acquired new overtones. The country continues to pay an impossibly huge price for its role as a frontline state during the American-financed jihad against the Soviets in Afghanistan when jihadi parties – fully supported by the Inter-Services Intelligence – practically ripped apart Pakistani society. In the 1990s, the jihadi parties became a state within a state, indiscriminately spreading what is called in the country “the “Kalashnikov culture.”

Pakistan celebrated 55 years of independence last week. In one of Karachi’s central streets there was an endless parade of people celebrating on motorbikes, donkeys, buses and trucks carrying huge Pakistani flags or even papier-mache clones of the Ghauri missile. Most of these people erupting with joy were young and poor. According to the country survey “Poverty in Pakistan,” just published by the Asian Development Bank, in 1999 – when Musharraf’s regime took over – 32 percent of Pakistanis were living under the poverty line. In 2002, that figure has risen to 35 percent.

The report says that the main reason is bad governance. For all of Musharraf’s good intentions, there can be no poverty alleviation when Pakistan is strangled between extremely heavy spending on defense and the impossible repayment of its foreign debt. These two factors consumed 90 percent of tax revenues during 1998-2000. There is no money left to be spent on physical infrastructure and development of the social sector, something that can be easily attested by a simple stroll in a big city or around rural areas. And with the recent terror attacks against Christians and foreigners, certainly there is not a lot of incentive for foreign and domestic investment.

From a series of illuminating discussions with the Oxbridge-educated, Washington-connected Pakistani elite, a consensus emerges: Musharraf has blown his chance. He may be a guest of honor in New York next September 11, hailed as a crucial ally, but America’s war priorities are not necessarily Pakistan’s. And Pakistan’s priorities definitely are not the Pakistani president’s priorities.

Whatever the suspicions provoked by the rigged referendum which gave him some extra few years in power, Pakistani politicians ultimately did not object to Musharraf remaining president and armed with huge powers. They were thinking along the following scenario: Musharraf as president, a prime minister democratically elected, more responsible behavior from the political parties, a wiser National Assembly and the army back to the barracks.

It won’t happen. There is widespread distrust of the next parliamentarian elections scheduled for October, with educated Pakistanis talking about the inevitable emergence of a puppet prime minister. The National Assembly could be easily dismissed at the whim of Musharraf. A National Security Council, packed with military, will constantly surveil the civilians. And Musharraf will not only remain president, but army chief as well.

Even with all this protective coating, Musharraf now lives the life of a haunted man. He practically does not travel anymore: the security risk is enormous. When he goes somewhere, he goes on triple sets of identical Mercedes. Terror in Pakistan has demonstrated that it won’t spare churches, consulates or schools. And it will try its best to strike Musharraf himself. The president has been converted into the highest-profile potential victim of an infernal machinery set in motion more than two decades ago by the American-financed jihad against the Soviets. According to a well-connected Lahore businessman, “Musharraf wanted to be [Turkish founding father] Ataturk. He may end up being no more than [Indonesian dictator] Suharto.” But splinter jihadi groups will never allow this Suharto three decades in power.

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