Jonathan Power: The Big Hunt for Bin Laden

Last week, Scotland Yard (alas, working without their chief sleuth, the late Sherlock Holmes) uncovered a major bomb plot. Those arrested were all Pakistanis.

However, unlike the current U.S. policy, they chose to arrest the suspects, after months of carefully tracking their movements (notwithstanding Bob Quick, Britain’s senior counterterrorism expert, whose comical slip-up required the accelerating of planned raids and resulted in his resignation), not bomb them from 30,000 feet.

Likewise, when four years ago bombers blew up trains entering Madrid’s central station, the Spanish police laboriously ran them down, eventually cornering a number of the ringleaders in a safehouse. That time, the perpetrators were mainly Algerians and Moroccans. Those arrested, and later convicted and imprisoned, had no formal links with Al Qaeda. In fact, their ties were non existent, a government-appointed commission later found. Doubtless, however, it was the example of Al Qaeda that prompted their horrific attacks. The Spanish, on their manhunt, did not choose to bomb them, or even blast them out of their hideaways. (Seven suspects did, however, blow themselves up when they found themselves surrounded by Spanish authorities.) But the investigation took careful police work, backed by the latest in forensic and technological tools.

Couldn’t the Americans and NATO have done the same at the onset of their intervention in Afghanistan? Certainly, investigating domestic terrorism isn’t the same as stamping it out in a hostile and foreign land, but allied forces could have found informers and probably help from the rank and file of locals who wanted to have nothing to do with those who blew up New York’s World Trade Center. Even many in the ranks of the Taliban may have been privately uneasy by the Al Qaeda attack. Moreover, Osama bin Laden was a distant, shadowy figure for most of them.

Instead, we had a blanket armed invasion. The UN has reported that, in 2008, the number of civilian casualties rose by 40 percent. Surely there is a better way of finding bin Laden. Western forces are not there to reform Islam, to liberate women, or to install democracy. Afghan society must choose for itself whether or not it wants to pursue these lofty goals.

The Americans and NATO went in to find bin Laden, and they should stick fast to that original aim. They have not succeeded in this narrow, but obviously not simple, task—and show little sign of doing so before many more innocent Afghanis and Pakistanis are killed. No wonder the Taliban militancy has now spilled over into Pakistan, doubling the problem Washington came to solve.

But where are the CIA, the FBI, MI6 and Scotland Yard in this effort? They should be doing their job in Pakistan and Afghanistan, using Pashto-speaking agents and the latest forensic technology. If you read the new book, Spying Blind by Amy Zegart, a scholarly examination of the U.S. intelligence failures that preceded September 11, you will come away, as I did, appalled. She argues that the answer to their incompetence lies in their deeply rooted organizational weaknesses, that no boss has yet been able to significantly change.

Various commissions and Senate investigations have shown that the CIA has been consumed by its old Cold War ways and means: few agents on the ground, and a dependency on sophisticated yet remote technology, such as spy satellites. It has not adapted to the new world of terrorism and the threats posed by these religiously motivated insurgents. For example, Langley still has limited linguistic expertise in Pashto, the language spoken in the border regions of Afghanistan and Pakistan.

But even if they had the information and resources they needed, the Byzantine bureaucracy of America’s spy agencies would likely obscure and impede the best intelligence.

If bin Laden is hidden in a cave in Afghanistan or, more likely, in a large town in Pakistan, what is desperately needed are informers and the kind of informed guesses that are best developed by active and persistent police work. Deploying these tools is the obvious solution…or as Holmes would surely say, “Elementary, my dear Watson.”

Related posts