Don't Panic! March 04 2004

Your war questions answered

Is Osama bin Laden's capture imminent?

The electronic information-gathering apparatus here at Don't Panic headquarters is vast and powerful. In addition to the mountains of information we receive each week detailing scientific achievements in the fields of penis enlargement and ink jet cartridge replacement, we also get regular updates on important political and military operations worldwide.

Recently, we've noticed an uptick in chatter about the imminent capture of Osama bin Laden. It goes something like this:

Pakistan's military has been on the offensive in the lawless, tribal provinces along its border with Afghanistan. We think that bin Laden's been chillin' there ever since he escaped Afghanistan in 2001. Until recently, these regions have operated nearly independently of Pakistan's central government. The regions are mountainous, rugged, rural and home to ethnic Pashtuns who sympathize (and empathize) with neighboring Afghanistan's Taliban and al-Qaeda.

Pakistan's military strategy in these regions is frequently described as an effort to "smoke out" foreigners and send them fleeing into Afghanistan — and the waiting arms of American forces. Picture it: Pakistani forces set off smoke bombs all over the tribal regions. Unable to control their coughing, bin Laden and his top lieutenants flee to Afghanistan where they're captured by U.S. Special Forces disguised as Afghan lozenge salesmen.

Minus the smoke and lozenges, that's actually the plan. The Pakistani troops keep going into villages and telling the village elders to quit sheltering foreigners, or else. "Or else" consists of military assaults and arrests. On Feb. 20, an assault on a village netted 20 Pakistani militants and, according to some reports, the son of bin Laden's top lieutenant, Ayman Al-Zawahiri. I have no idea what, if any, terrorist activities the son has participated in.The elder Al-Zawahiri's voice is heard on the recently released al-Qaeda audiotape threatening more terrorism against the United States and, amusingly, complaining about France's recent ban on religious dress in public schools. Why would the French make it illegal for Muslim schoolgirls to wear headdresses? Al-Zawahiri says it's because "envy boils" in French hearts and "overflows in their chests." I told you it was amusing.

On the other side of the border in Afghanistan, American forces are confident that Pakistani cooperation will indeed flush bin Laden into their hands. Top U.S. officials note that the bin Laden hunt has recently taken on "a renewed sense of urgency." Speaking to reporters in Afghanistan, Lt. Col. Matthew Beevers said of al-Qaeda's leaders, "The sands in their hourglass are running out." Sand? Arabs? Get it?

It's hard not to be skeptical. We've heard it all before. Bin Laden's capture has been imminent since, oh, Sept. 12, 2001. If there's one thing bin Laden is good at, it's not getting caught. Two things do seem different this time, though. First, the Pakistani offensive to smoke 'em out appears to be larger and more comprehensive than it's ever been. Second, we've supposedly put our best commandos on the hunt. The Washington Times reported that "super secret" Task Force 121 is in Afghanistan. The unit has a little extra time on its hands now that Saddam is captured and we're no longer hunting for Iraqi weapons of mass destruction.

I suppose that's good news, because everyone wants bin Laden caught. But it's also a bit frustrating. We were so caught up in Iraq, which turned out not to be an imminent danger to the United States, that we've waited two-and-a-half years since the 9-11 attacks to move our best commando unit in to get bin Laden? Here's something else that's frustrating. If Task Force 121 is so damned "super secret," how come its movements are being reported in the Washington Times?

Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, usually not shy about touting U.S. military prowess, is more philosophical than boastful about the prospect of nabbing bin Laden soon. While visiting Afghanistan recently, Rumsfeld was asked about the possibility of Osama's capture. "It will happen when it happens," he explained. "And I don't believe it's closer or farther at any given moment." It's precisely those sorts of statements that inspired journalist Hart Seely to compile 2003's "Pieces of Intelligence: The Existential Poetry of Donald H. Rumsfeld."


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