Osama bin Laden in June 1999. Photo courtesy of AFP
Osama bin Laden in June 1999. Photo courtesy of AFP

On August 30, 2001, less than two weeks before the event that was to become known as 9/11, Asia Times Online (as this website was called at the time) published an article by this writer titled “Get Osama! Now! Or else …” Back then, hardly anyone in the West had heard of Osama bin Laden. The original article, which burned up the search engines after the Twin Towers came down, is reproduced here in its entirety.

PESHAWAR, Pakistan – American commandos likely to descend on Pakistan’s tribal areas may not be too keen on acquiring the supreme fashion accessory of 2001 in the region, the Osama bin Laden T-shirt, boasting such inscriptions as “World Hero” and “The Great Mujahid of Jihad.” They’re selling briskly in Peshawar’s Saddar bazaar for less than US$2 a pop.

The US special forces guys could also take back home a few examples of Osama rappin’, available on cassette tapes. They could collect Osama mugshots with lovely psychedelic overtones, and even an Osama video – where the No 1 on the FBI’s most-wanted list on charges of international terrorism preaches from a mosque and talks to his faithful jihadis in the field. Osama says, “You gotta leave all these places run by ‘allies of Jews and Christians’ and come to me to do the jihad.” He calls for “blood, blood and destruction, destruction” – referring to an array of Muslim victims from Palestine to Chechnya, from Lebanon to Kashmir.

Osama bin Laden – also the No 1 target of the CIA’s counterterrorism center – is now a superstar playing the bad guy in some sort of planetary Hollywood fiction. Yet inside Afghanistan today, where the Saudi Arabian lives in exile, Osama is a minor character. He is ill and always in hiding – usually “somewhere near Kabul.” Once in a while he travels incognito to Peshawar. His organization, al-Qaeda, is split, and in tatters. The Taliban owe him a lot for his past deeds towards the movement and in putting them in power in Afghanistan – contributing with a stack of his own personal fortune of millions of dollars. But no longer an asset, he has become a liability.

General President (or vice-versa) Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan is not sleeping very well these days since the full force of the George W administration requested his direct input into a high-tech “Get Osama” operation any time soon. Peshawar is full of rumors concerning an American commando infiltrating Afghanistan from Pakistan, supported by formidable airpower.

Call Jerry Bruckheimer! This is the stuff Hollywood is made of – and also the stuff of debacles such as Jimmy Carter’s attempted rescue of US hostages in Iran. Any Mujahid worth his Kalashnikov in Afghanistan these days – up to commander Ahmadshah Masoud himself – is on the record as saying that cruise missile attacks will cause no damage whatsoever to the already ravaged country.

Officially, Musharraf has rejected his support for this latest Hollywood ploy, and has been frantically trying to convince the Americans any brutal action against Osama or his so-called “terrorist sanctuaries” will fuel a radical Islamic backlash in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Central Asia of “burn, baby, burn” proportions. It doesn’t matter that the strike would have the full approval of the United Nations and the G8 countries – this would be an added reason for a series of Islamic counter-strikes across the industrialized world.

Under an army of spinners, this nifty “George W does Rambo” number will be played to the galleries as one of the latest American foreign-policy initiatives concerning Afghanistan. It’s no secret America wants even more sanctions against the Taliban – and maybe against Pakistan. But as many people either in the Pashto belt on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border or in the Tajik-speaking areas have been saying out loud for months, there is no Western policy concerning Afghanistan – except the UN sanctions, which among others, call on the Taliban to hand over bin Laden.

The UN has now posted more than 20 monitors in countries bordering Afghanistan – part of a sanctions enforcement support team – to ensure full implementation. This means, in practice, a lot of electronic surveillance on the very porous 1,200-kilometer Pakistan-Afghanistan border, and a lot of “counterterrorism tactics.” An array of hardcore Islamic parties in Pakistan have already announced that they will make the life of the “Team” as miserable as possible.

Most of all, Musharraf cannot sleep well because one thing he doesn’t need in Pakistan right now is more trouble from Islamic hardliners. What he needs is a lot of cash from the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank to keep the economy afloat. If he says yes to the Americans, all hell will break loose concerning the radicals, but he will certainly bag a crucial $3.5 billion Poverty Reduction Growth Fund from the IMF, as well as other loans from Western nations. There are some signs that the Musharraf administration is at least doing something to restrain the hardliners. It has frozen all the accounts of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan held with the State Bank of Pakistan, and also all the accounts held by jihadi outfits inside Pakistan.

Pakistani government officials, though, remain afraid. They know that even a semblance of minimal cooperation with the “Get Osama” scheme will be devastating for the Musharraf government. They know that since 1996 the Taliban have become masters at using any kind of conflict inside the Pakistani establishment to their full advantage. They always extract maximum benefit from Pakistan without any political concessions.

The Taliban are closely intertwined with Pakistani society. Their ultra-conservative – and for the West, demented – form of Islam is widely admired by a young generation of Pakistani madrassa (fundamentalist religious school) students. All it takes to understand the process is a visit to one of the thousands of madrassas in the tribal areas where Osama is the “World Hero of jihad.”

It is quite clear that one way or another the jihad T-shirt vendors in the Peshawar bazaars will keep on rollin’ – with or without customers from the land of George W.

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