Commentary

Outsourcing the Hunt for Bin Laden

By Leon T. Hadar
This article was published in the Los Angeles Times, April 1, 2004.

Imagine the following scenario, which includes all the historical analogies that neoconservative ideologues like to apply — World War II, Hitler, appeasement — plus a bonus reference to the evil du jour, Spain.

As American and Allied forces invade Nazi Germany in 1945, Adolf Hitler, Heinrich Himmler and several SS troops flee to Fascist Spain, where they hide in the Pyrenees Mountains and mount guerrilla attacks against the Free French government. The American response? To ask Generalissimo Francisco Franco if he would be kind enough to send some of his forces to catch those Nazis — and it would be nice if it could all be wrapped up before the 1948 presidential election.

Sound absurd? Well, there is an element of the absurd in the acrimonious debate on 9/11 taking place these days. Lawmakers and pundits are arguing about what could have been done to prevent the terrorist attacks. But they all agree that if Americans could rewind history to pre-9/11, they would have done everything humanly possible to capture or kill Osama bin Laden and his Al Qaeda associates — sooner rather than later.

But why look backward? Bin Laden and Ayman Zawahiri — the war-on-terrorism’s Hitler and Himmler, respectively — are still alive and well, as far as we know, and living somewhere in Pakistan. Yet to whom is the United States assigning the task of dealing with the gravest threat to its national security and to ensure that such horrific events won’t happen again? To the best and the brightest in the American armed forces and intelligence services? You would assume that we owe as much to the victims of 9/11 and their families.

But no. In fact, the job of wiping out the leaders of the group responsible for the worst attack on the homeland has been outsourced to a corrupt and incompetent regime that is ruling a country where anti-American Islamist groups roam the streets — and the corridors of power.

Indeed, Pakistan’s military and security services, which are in charge of hunting Bin Laden and his troops, were once allied with the Taliban, the former Al Qaeda protectors in Afghanistan. And some of its members are sympathetic to a radical Islamist agenda. Until recently, the nation’s top nuclear scientist was selling his country’s secret military technology to Iran, Libya and North Korea.

Pakistan should have topped President Bush’s “axis of evil” list. Instead, it has been designated as a “non-NATO” ally of the United States. And its leader, Pervez Musharraf, a military dictator who ousted the country’s democratically elected, although admittedly unpopular, government, has been feted in Washington as a key partner of the United States in the global campaign to combat terrorism.

This policy helped to produce last month’s pathetic spectacle in the war on terrorism. Musharraf was eager to divert media attention from Abdul Qadeer Khan’s nuclear arms bazaar and to impress visiting U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell. Thus, Musharraf and his aides raised expectations that Zawahiri would be captured in a major battle with the guerrillas. But the Pakistanis, after bungling the military operation and suffering many casualties, discovered a network of secret tunnels that the fighters had used to escape. Adding insult to injury, Al Qaeda’s No. 2 figure showed up on a new audiotape calling for Musharraf’s overthrow.

Some military observers might conclude that the Pakistani army just doesn’t have the competence to mount a serious fight against Al Qaeda and capture its leaders. Other critics might explain the failure to apprehend Bin Laden and his associates by pointing to the support that radical Islamists enjoy among the rank and file of the Pakistani military and security services.

Take your pick, but consider what an American “war president” would have done in that 1945 scenario. He would have given Franco an ultimatum: Catch Hitler and Himmler, hand them over to us alive or dead, and destroy all the SS remnants. And do it ASAP. If you can’t deliver, the full force of the U.S. military will be employed to make that happen.

Americans should not wait for congressional commissions and historians to explain why their war president wasn’t taking that same kind of action against Bin Laden and Zawahiri in 2004, and why he decided to subcontract the job to an inept and untrustworthy military dictator whose associates espouse anti-Americanism, coddle terrorists and sell WMD to “rogue states.” What they know already sounds even worst than appeasement.

Leon Hadar is a research fellow in foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute.