Hunting Bin Laden: The Politics of the Posse

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Pakistan's leader General Pervez Musharraf

On Sunday, President Bush called the campaign against terrorism a "crusade." On Tuesday, his spokesman Ari Fleischer apologized for the President's use of a term offensive to the Arab nations whose maximum cooperation is essential to the defeat of Osama Bin Laden and his ilk. For them, after all, the term "crusade" refers to the era when they were colonized by medieval European warriors who believed they could hasten Christ's return by capturing Jerusalem. In fact, it is precisely because of those associations that Osama bin Laden refers to the U.S. not as "imperialists" or even "the Great Satan," but simply as "crusaders" — casting himself as a latter-day Salah el-Din (or Saladdin), the man who eventually drove the Christian occupiers from Jerusalem.

[an error occurred while processing this directive]The double meaning of a term as apparently innocuous as "crusade" serves as a reminder of the complex geopolitical challenges involved in building and sustaining the broad coalition necessary to root out terrorism. That challenge is about a lot more than simply rounding up a posse to go into Afghanistan and arrest or kill Osama Bin Laden. President Bush may stir American feelings by invoking the image of a Wild Western "Wanted Dead or Alive" poster, but listen closely to Secretary of State Colin Powell: "Osama bin Laden is the chairman of the holding company, and within that holding company are terrorist cells and organizations in dozens of countries around the world, any one them capable of committing a terrorist act," said Powell on Monday. "It's not enough to get one individual, although we'll start with that one individual."

Posse politics

The coalition, then, has to be capable of not only mustering the forces to go after Bin Laden himself, but also to sustain a consistent long-term effort to root out his cadres and their allies across the globe. And the need to establish the widest possible consensus behind a course of action may explain the furious diplomatic shuttling between U.S. leaders and their European, Russian, Pakistani, Arab and Asian counterparts underway this week.

If neutralizing Bin Laden is the first phase of the anti-terror campaign, the form that will take may be known Tuesday when the Taliban convenes a council of 20 of its senior clerics to rule on an ultimatum to extradite the Saudi terrorist. Pakistani emissaries met Taliban leaders on Monday to emphasize that they had only days to agree to hand him over, or else face devastating military force. There's little optimism that they'll agree to the U.S. demand — although the self-preservation urge may prompt them to play for time by demanding that the evidence against Bin Laden be presented to their own religious courts. But the Taliban underlined its posture of defiance by reportedly moving more than 20,000 fighters and SCUD missiles to the border with Pakistan on Monday.

Pakistan's dilemma

If the Taliban's response is to call what they may presume is a U.S. bluff, the exact nature of the military action that follows can have profound consequences for the broader anti-terror alliance. The European NATO members may have agreed to aid a U.S. military retaliation, but all except Britain are showing signs of uneasiness over being drawn into an ill-defined or open-ended war — indeed, they refuse to call it a "war" at all. The Bush administration, of course, is likely to steer clear of the sort of frontal invasion of Afghanistan that became a nightmare for the Soviets, and instead concentrate on special forces operations along with British commandos. But even that would draw fierce resistance from the Taliban, and the U.S. has, of course, promised to punish those who shelter Bin Laden. A major confrontation between the U.S. and the Taliban, though, potentially creates a serious domestic crisis for Pakistan, and possibly some of the Arab allies, too.

Pakistan is the indispensable ally in any military action against Bin Laden and his Taliban hosts, because its airspace and military bases are essential to any effort to strike inside Afghanistan, and its intelligence may be required to actually find Bin Laden. But the government of the nuclear-armed Muslim nation is under tremendous domestic political pressure from its own sizable Islamist constituency to rescind its somewhat reluctant decision to support the U.S. campaign, and there are real concerns over whether General Parvez Musharraf's military government would ultimately survive the domestic political turmoil a full-blown war would almost certainly unleash.

Israeli-Palestinian poser

But even Bin Laden's capture or elimination would destroy his networks only if it were followed by a sustained campaign of police and intelligence work to neutralize the thousands of his operatives all over the world. And the most important allies in such a campaign would be the governments of the Arab world, from among whose citizens Bin Laden claims most of his recruits. But the escalating Israeli-Palestinian violence poses a significant obstacle to winning active Arab support for the U.S.-led anti-terror campaign. Arab governments have found it increasingly difficult to support Washington on issues such as Iraq, for example, as the continued U.S. campaign against that country and the violence in the West Bank and Gaza has fanned anti-American rage on Arab streets. And it is precisely that sentiment that Bin Laden exploits to solicit recruits, funding and support across the Arab and Muslim world.

The Bush administration's global anti-terror campaign has given it an overriding interest in restarting some form of Israeli-Palestinian peace process — and America is not finding Prime Minister Ariel Sharon particularly eager to play ball. Before the dust had settled on the World Trade Center ruins, Sharon ordered his foreign minister, Shimon Peres, to call off cease-fire talks with Yasser Arafat, who Sharon likened to Osama Bin Laden. And he has since sent his army into three Palestinian cities amid escalating violence. Bush administration officials phoned Sharon five times in the past week to urge him to allow the Peres-Arafat meeting to go ahead, and it seems to be working: Tuesday both sides agreed to a cease-fire.

In order to keep the Arab allies on board during the Gulf War, the first Bush administration insisted, under threat of withholding U.S. aid, that Israel refrain from building settlements in the West Bank and Gaza, and pressed it to open negotiations with the Palestinians. Ironically, the global anti-terror campaign may presage a more activist peacemaking role by the new Bush administration, too. It even has the potential to foster unprecedented security cooperation between Washington and such hitherto "untouchable" regimes as Iran and Syria. But there are profound dangers, too. A wider war between the West and the Arab and Muslim world is precisely what Bin Laden and his henchmen are trying to provoke — and what the Bush administration must avoid. It is the tricky quest for allies that will help the U.S. avoid just such a conflagration.