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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Tuesday, June 28, 2005

How Osama bin Laden is being kept hidden

By Daniel Sneider

The first published interview with new CIA Director Porter Goss, which appeared last week in Time magazine, contained a bombshell that exploded with barely any notice.

Pakistani army soldiers in the Tirah valley, along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, reportedly were patrolling the narrow mountain trails in this 2001 photo to try to stop Osama bin Laden or other al-Qaida members from escaping into Pakistan. But the CIA thinks Pakistan is unofficially giving sanctuary.

Associated Press library photo

To the ritual question — when will we get Osama bin Laden? — Goss gave a far from ritual answer.

"That is a question that goes far deeper than you know," Goss began. "We have some weak links" that make it impossible for now to get bin Laden, he explained, pointing to "the very difficult question of dealing with sanctuaries in sovereign states."

Sounds like you know where he is, the interviewer pressed. "I have an excellent idea of where he is," Goss responded.

The CIA boss was delivering a clear message to the "weak link" — Pakistan and its military ruler, Gen. Pervez Musharraf.

As he did two weeks ago in Australia, Musharraf claims to have al-Qaida "on the run" in Pakistan, his forces having chased them out of cities into the mountains and then "occupied their sanctuaries."

That rhetoric draws derision inside the CIA. According to sources familiar with the intelligence community discussion on this issue, there is mounting evidence that the Pakistani military — and its intelligence wing, the ISI — are nurturing their deep ties to Islamic extremists, including those who are sheltering the al-Qaida leadership and leaders of the Afghan Taliban.

Recently retired CIA officer Gary Schoen, who served for 20 years in that area, has just published a memoir of the war on terror in Afghanistan. In an interview with Pakistan's Daily Times, Schoen was even more explicit about bin Laden.

"He's hiding in Pakistan in the northern tribal areas above Peshawer. ... The U.S. government and the U.S. military are not authorized by the Musharraf government to enter there unilaterally," he said. Schoen speculated that some ISI officers know exactly where bin Laden is hiding.

The White House and the State Department know this but are keeping a debate over how to handle the Pakistan Problem behind closed doors. They argue that too much pressure could topple the relatively moderate Musharraf and bring Islamic extremists to power in a nuclear-armed Pakistan.

That dilemma is real. The administration shoveled in economic and military aid while soft-peddling Musharraf's miserable record on democracy and human rights. But it is increasingly difficult to cover up evidence that Musharraf is no longer delivering his side of the bargain.

Consider just these few recent events:

• On June 5, the FBI arrested a young Pakistani-American man and his father in Lodi. According to their affidavits, the men purportedly lied about the son being trained during the past two years in al-Qaida-linked camps just outside Rawalpindi, home to the army's headquarters. The Pakistani government hurriedly denied that such camps existed.

• The following week, a Pakistani TV network aired an interview with a senior Taliban commander in contact with Taliban leader Mullah Omar and bin Laden. Afghan officials and the outgoing U.S. ambassador in Kabul, Zalmay Khalilzad, questioned how a TV crew could find a man whom Pakistani intelligence services say they can't locate.

• On June 20, Afghan authorities arrested three Pakistanis for plotting to assassinate the U.S. ambassador to Pakistan, a frequent critic of Islamabad's failure to curb the Taliban. Afghan officials see the hand of the ISI behind all this, including a recent upsurge in Taliban violence.

CIA officers agree this is no rogue operation. The only question is whether it was authorized by Musharraf and if so, why? There are no good answers to either question — yet.

It is clear, however, that the ISI continues to protect the Taliban, which it has done since the fundamentalist Islamist group was created as an instrument of influence in Afghanistan. The Taliban, in turn, enjoys the protection of fellow Pashtun tribal leaders whose realms straddle the border. Bin Laden benefits from their sanctuary as well.

Behind this lies a deeper problem of the long and intimate ties between the Pakistani military and Islamists, a relationship explored in depth in an important new book, "Pakistan: Between Mosque and Military," by veteran Pakistani journalist Husain Haqqani.

"Militarism in Pakistan feeds Islamism and Islamism feeds militarism," he told me, "and the two can't live without each other."

That is the true "weak link" in Pakistan. Until it is severed, the Pakistan Problem will only get worse.

Daniel Sneider is foreign affairs columnist for the San Jose Mercury News.