Monday, January 17, 2005

The Forgotten Man

President George W. Bush gave out a lot of interviews in the days preceding his inauguration for a second term. Reading through the transcripts, one is struck by a question that few editors bothered to ask. Where is Osama bin Laden?

Of course, the editors had only limited time in the Oval Office and a lot of territory to cover, although the Washington Times editors chose to use some of their precious interview time to inquire how presidential dog Barney is reacting to a new puppy in the White House.

But is it possible that many of the interviewers simply forgot about the man who perpetrated the worst attack on American soil in its history?

Osama bin Laden is rapidly becoming the forgotten man. He has almost totally dropped out of the American discourse. During the recent presidential campaign John Kerry tried to make an issue by accusing the Bush administration of taking its eyes off the ball. But it isn’t just the Bush administration that has lost focus. We all have.

Only rarely does Osama bin Laden impinge on our consciousness now. That happens when he periodically issues a taped statement. It appears on our television screens. The message is debated for a day or two. Then he disappears and nothing more is said or heard about him.

The government would like us to believe that Osama is on the lam, moving from cave to cave somewhere along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, just one step ahead of the American commandos or Pakistani army troops poised to “bring him back dead or alive,” any day now.

But Osama’s most recent taped appearances belie that notion. He has not been filmed somewhere in the Afghan wilderness, a trusty automatic rifle by his side. He speaks from what appears to be in a kind of TV studio. He looks to have fully recovered from wounds that he suffered during the Tora Bora battle.

He isn’t sweating.

To its credit, the Washington Post did question the President about Osama. The segment was brief but in many ways illuminating. Expansive on other topics, Bush became strangely terse and somewhat testy about this subject. Note how the Post tried to pin him down as to what our allies [ie Pakistan] are doing to find and apprehend him.

The Post: Why do you think [Osama] bin laden has not yet been caught?

The President: Because he’s hiding.

The Post: Our allies have done all they can do to help catch him?

The President: We’re on the hunt.

The Post: Do you think others are on the hunt too? Are you happy, content, about what other countries are doing in that hunt?

The President: Yes.

The Post: Anyone you’re not happy with?

The President: Look, bin Laden is elusive. And he is in a remote part of the world. And we are – I am – I cannot think of anyone in the world who is our ally who isn’t willing to do what is necessary to try and find him. And so am I pleased about the hunt? I am pleased that he’s isolated. I will be more pleased when he is brought to justice. And I think he will be.

Is Osama hiding or protected? Pakistan’s President Pervaz Musharaf has stated that he has no idea where Osama is. Should we believe him? Is it conceivable that Osama’s whereabouts are not known to Pakistan’s vaunted Inter-Services Intelligence agency? The agency, which created the Taliban, is known to harbor jihadist sympathizers to this day.

Since the September 11, 2001 attack on America, Osama has made 29 tapes. Most of these tapes have been delivered by anonymous couriers to the Arab television network al-Jazeera’s bureau in Islamabad, the capital of Pakistan. Why is it that there have been no interceptions of any of these couriers?

Many believe that Osama is hiding somewhere in the “lawless” Northwest Frontier Province. Yet all of the high-profile al-Qaeda operatives that have been captured so far have been nabbed in cities away from the border. This includes 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammad, captured in Rawalpindi, headquarters for the Pakistani Army!

Pakistan has provided us much service in the War on Terrorism, but it may also be doing us the ultimate disservice by protecting Osama bin Laden. It would not be surprising if the president or anyone else would prefer to duck awkward questions on this subject. Nevertheless, they should be asked.

Any news organization that has a chance to directly query the president, or Secretary of Defense Don Rumsfeld, for that matter, either at a press conference or in an interview is derelict if it does not bring up Osama bin Laden. Never mind whether it elicits a newsy answer. It is important to keep the president’s feet to the fire.


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