The war in eastern Afghanistan and the tribal areas in Pakistan is barely on, but the Pentagon’s spinning machine is in high gear. Who will prevail: al-Qaeda’s number two, Ayman “The Surgeon” al-Zawahiri, or Commando 121?

The Pentagon’s creative directors ruled that Commando 121, or Task Force 121, of General William Boykin – a self-described Islamophobe and a known Christian fanatic – was responsible for the capture of Saddam Hussein, when in fact the former dictator was arrested by Kurdish peshmerga (paramilitary) forces acting on a tip by one of his cousins and then sold to the Americans, according to Asia Times Online sources in the Sunni triangle. This week, without a blip in many a strategic radar screen, Commando 121 transferred from Iraq to Pakistan. On October 25 of last year, Asia Times Online reported that Boykin had been appointed in charge of the hunt for Osama bin Laden. It’s snowing on Rumsfeld’s parade.

European intelligence sources tell Asia Times Online to expect the same scenario “Saddam” for the eventuality of the capture of bin Laden and Taliban spiritual leader Mullah Omar. Bin Laden will be “smoked out,” probably on a tip by an Afghan tribal leader willing to make a cool US$25 million. And all credit will go to the secretive Commando 121, which is known to comprise navy Seals and commandos from the army’s Delta Force.

The Pentagon has fired its first rhetorical Tomahawks of the season – via a leak this past weekend by a “US intelligence source” that bin Laden, al-Zawahiri, Mullah Omar and about 50 top al-Qaeda operatives had been located in Pakistan’s Balochistan province. Pakistani President General Pervez Musharraf was said to be on the brink of authorizing an American intervention. According to the Pentagon script, the fugitives are “boxed in,” packed in a tight group, surrounded by an array of US and British special forces, and apparently with no chance of escaping.

This sounds like a replay of Tora Bora in December 2001, when US-led forces were convinced that they had bin Laden trapped in the mountainous range of that name in Afghanistan, only to learn that he had moved on long before the worst of the massive US assault on the area. The difference this time is that the fugitives are now said to be in the “isolated” Toba Kakar mountains in Balochistan, northeast of the provincial capital Quetta, and very far from the Afghan province of Zabol, on the other side of the border.

The fugitives are supposed to be in an area between the villages of Khanozoi and Murgha Faqizai. There is a road between both villages – and not much else. The average altitude in these mountains is 3,000 meters. There is an obvious escape route: a tortuous mountain trail towards the Afghan border village of A’la Jezah. And there are the not-so-obvious routes, known only to bin Laden and a few Arab-Afghans familiar with the country since the early 1980s.

According to the Pentagon leak, the fugitives were found through “a combination of CIA [Central Intelligence Agency] paramilitaries and special forces, plus image analysis by geographers and soil experts.” Predictably, local Balochistan authorities deny everything. But even if bin Laden and the whole al-Qaeda leadership are in fact encircled in this area – and not further north, between the provinces of Kunar in Afghanistan and Chitral in Pakistan, where they were supposed to be hiding – what’s the point of telling the whole world about it?

CIA vs Pentagon

It’s no less than a coincidence, then, that a new Ayman al-Zawahiri tape surfaced on Arab networks only one day after these Pentagon leaks claimed that they had al-Qaeda surrounded, with the Americans just waiting for some “authorization” to capture them. Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld will be in Afghanistan this week. Exasperated diplomats suggest to Asia Times Online that he may have personally negotiated the terms of the “authorization” with Musharraf. After all, these are the stakes that really matter for the Bush administration: when, where and how to spin the capture of bin Laden and Mullah Omar.

The CIA is already covering its back – just in case. CIA supremo George Tenet was on a secret mission to Islamabad in early February – arguably to discuss the modalities of spinning concerning bin Laden’s whereabouts. Tenet will do anything to help George W Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney as the president has firmly kept Tenet in his job, even after the “intelligence failure” before September 11 and the “intelligence failure” concerning the missing weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. To further fireproof his cover this time, Tenet told the US Senate Intelligence Committee that al-Qaeda was capable of more September 11-style attacks inside American territory, citing evidence that al-Qaeda was planning to recruit airline pilots for such missions.

According to the CIA chief, bin Laden has “gone deep underground.” He was not specific, and unlike the Pentagon, he did not point to the exact global positioning satellite coordinates of bin Laden and his crew of 50. Rumsfeld clearly knows something that Tenet does not.

Another key actor, Musharraf, is duly following his script – stationing “tens of thousands” of Pakistani army troops in the tribal areas and vigorously trying to “smoke out” the usual al-Qaeda and Taliban suspects. But sources tell Asia Times Online that very few Afghan-Arabs remain active in the Afghan resistance movement – only the ones who fought in the jihad of the 1980s against the Soviets, speak local Pashtun dialects and know each piece of rock in the Afghan and tribal area mountains. Musharraf’s job is much easier now that the whole porous area has been declared off limits to the foreign press. Moreover, any Pakistani official source insists on strictly denying the presence of any American troops of any size, color or structure operating inside Pakistani territory.

But where are they?

Sources in Peshawar confirm to Asia Times Online that Pakistani and American forces are raising hell on both sides of the porous Pak-Afghan border, with Islamabad contributing with helicopter gunships, paramilitary forces and regular ground troops. This is the hors d’oeuvre for the already well-flagged upcoming spring offensive by the resistance. The American offensive at first will be concentrated in North and South Waziristan, on the Pakistani side, and the provinces of Paktia and Paktika on the Afghan side.

Pashtun tribals in the Afghan province of Khost confirm that after a bombing campaign, American forces and local Afghan allies brought with them the usual suitcases full of dollars and are now involved in house-to-house searches. This area used to be a stronghold of famous former Taliban minister and commander Jalaluddin Haqqani. The Americans will soon be forced to start a real war in Paktika – as the Hamid Karzai government in Kabul has admitted losing nine districts in the province, and running the risk of losing the rest. Some of the Paktika districts are now ruled by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s Hezb-i-Islami Afghanistan party, others by tribal leaders simply hostile to the American-backed Karzai regime. The Taliban also say that they now control several districts in Zabul province.

Islamabad is taking no prisoners. Now, Pashtun tribals cannot even indulge in their favorite pastime: to roll in their beloved Toyota Land Cruisers with tinted windows. Anyone not removing the tinted glass faces three years in jail, confiscation of the vehicle and a $1,200 fine.

Pakistan’s information minister, Sheikh Rashid Ahmed, confirms that the army is now deployed “all over the tribal areas.” “Our rapid action forces are there, they have sealed the border.” The information minister’s assurance that “no one is allowed to come in from Afghanistan” is part of the new official spin from Islamabad, “part of Pakistan’s commitment to the international community against terrorism.”

The information minister insists that Pakistan has not received from Washington any satellite pictures of bin Laden, al-Zawahiri or the al-Qaeda top 50 hiding in Pakistani territory. But much more interesting is his current estimation that US forces “would never enter Pakistan.” Pakistan may have “sealed the border” with Afghanistan, but how to unseal it for the Americans is a matter to be discussed face-to-face by Rumsfeld and Musharraf this week. For this meeting, Rumsfeld can draw on his experience of discussing touchy issues with former CIA asset Saddam back in Baghdad in 1983.

The previous, official Pakistani script that its army could not legally enter in the semi-autonomous tribal areas has been reduced to dust. Hardline Islamist, anti-American sectors in Pakistan will not be amused. While the Musharraf system sells to Washington once again the idea they are trying to help the Americans to fight “the terrorists,” nobody can tell with any degree of certainty what exactly Musharraf’s game is, the Inter-Services Intelligence’s game or the army’s game.

And what if bin Laden decides not to follow the script? According to sources close to the Pakistani newspaper Khabrain, bin Laden has made his seven bodyguards take an oath to kill him in the event that he is in any danger of being arrested. He will try to blow himself up. Western diplomatic sources, on the other hand, prefer to insist that if bin Laden is arrested according to the current Pentagon plan, the whole operation will be kept secret – to be disclosed only a few weeks or days before the American presidential election in November.

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