Osama could be in Khost, but taking him on is tough




NEW DELHI: The 30 million dollar question before the world today is: Where is Osama Bin Laden? According to a British newspaper citing his son, he is in a cave somewhere in Afghanistan. Going by the Al-Jazeera video images of Osama in a cave, an American geologist familiar with the region hazards said that he could be in Paktia province. Little has been heard about Paktia in this war, but it is a major centre for Osama and the location of the camps that were attacked in 1998 by US cruise missiles.

Paktia's capital, Khost, is a strong pro-Taliban town and is located in a natural bowl surrounded by rugged mountains which provided refuge to all the seven leading Mujahideen groups fighting the Soviets in the 1980s. During this period, the Russians garrison in Khost had to be supplied by air. In their nine-year occupation, the Russians launched multiple attacks in the surrounding mountains, some with special forces, attack helicopters, artillery barrages, aircraft and even scud missiles, but to little avail.

The Mujahideen just could not be dislodged from their network of natural caves and artificial tunnels carved into the mountains, courtesy Osama Bin Laden's gift of earth moving machinery. This is probably the scenario that Bin Laden hopes to repeat because to smoke him out of those mountains, the US would require an entire army, not just small groups of special forces.

The US has confirmed that small groups of special forces have been dropped into Afghanistan, not for combat but to gather intelligence and `designate' targets for air force fighters. Later larger groups could be used for combat against selected targets.

These forces expect to operate in cooperation with anti-Taliban forces already advancing in Afghanistan. But in the Khost area, there are no such forces as yet. Though Paktia adjoins Pakistan, access is not easy. The nearest Pakistani town of Miramshah is 80 km away on a circuitous mountain road and is poorly connected by road to the rest of the country.

If the Taliban collapse is not forthcoming or if it comes before an alternate structure is in place and Afghanistan descends into anarchy, the US military campaign will be vastly complicated. It already seems to have outstripped diplomatic efforts to work out a future political dispensation in the country. Part of the failure stems from the fact that the Taliban have not collapsed as was expected by some. Part stems from Pakistan's efforts to ensure that it will dominate any successor government. The US does not seem to have quite made up its mind about the course it needs to take. So it is hesitating from delivering the coup-de-grace to the Taliban and desisting from attacking powerful Taliban forces facing the Northern Alliance in the north.

For its part, the US is clear about one thing. It is not going to repeat the Iraq mistake and walk off from the battle without displacing the Taliban and killing/arresting Osama Bin Laden. But, this is proving to be a more difficult task than anticipated. Afghanistan is a much larger country than indicated by Mercator projection maps. It is nearly twice the size of Germany, but has few roads and poor communications. If he is not in the Khost bowl, Osama could be anywhere else in this vast, mostly trackless mountainous terrain.