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Target: Bin Laden

The shaky politics of Pakistan and doubts about Al Qaeda could soon put the terrorist leader in our grasp.

April 13, 2008|Steve Coll | Steve Coll, president of the New America Foundation and a staff writer at the New Yorker, is the author of "The Bin Ladens: An Arabian Family in the American Century." His previous book, "Ghost Wars," won the Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction in 2005.

Osama bin Laden lives among friends, follows news on satellite television or the Internet and reads books about American foreign policy; this much can be safely inferred from his periodic audio and video statements. His latest topical punditry surfaced just a few weeks ago on jihadi websites when he addressed violence in Gaza and the pope's travels.

Because of his passable grasp of current events, Bin Laden may well understand what many Americans do not: that he is more likely to be killed or captured during the next year or so than at any time since late 2001, when he escaped U.S. warplanes bombing him in eastern Afghanistan, at Tora Bora.

This welcome change in probabilities has almost nothing to do with the Bush administration's counter-terrorism strategy, which remains rudderless and starved of resources because of the war in Iraq. It is a consequence, instead, of dramatic political changes in Pakistan, where Bin Laden is believed to be hiding and where Al Qaeda's local mistakes and the restoration of civilian democracy have combined to make him considerably less safe.

Bin Laden's personal approval rating in Pakistan, as measured by a number of international polls, is plummeting. Beginning last year, Al Qaeda began to support an unprecedented wave of suicide bombings on Pakistani soil; the campaign culminated in the murder of two-time former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto in December. Before, when Bin Laden targeted the United States and Europe, many Pakistanis saw him as an Islamic folk hero. But although Pakistanis remain deeply skeptical about the United States, they have changed their thinking about Al Qaeda as hundreds of their own innocent civilians have become its victims.

In a poll released in February, Terror Free Tomorrow, a Washington-based nonprofit group, found that Bin Laden's popularity had fallen by half over just six months, to about 24%. In the Northwest Frontier Province, along the Afghan borderlands where he is most likely to be hiding, it fell into single digits. Recent British polling in the most radicalized border areas is less encouraging, but there is no doubt that the general picture in the Northwest Frontier is one of increasing anxiety and resentment toward Al Qaeda.

These souring attitudes are important because, in the past, hunts for terrorists hiding in Pakistan have almost always ended when a disillusioned (and generally greedy) local resident has dropped a dime on the fugitive for reward money. During the 1990s, for example, it took a number of frustrating years until the United States tracked down Mir Amal Kasi, a Pakistani who killed two CIA workers outside the agency's headquarters in 1993. It took about as long to locate Ramzi Ahmed Yousef, the architect of the first World Trade Center bombing; colleagues ultimately betrayed both men. Now that a larger number of Pakistanis see Bin Laden as a nihilistic killer, the chances that such a walk-in informant will surface have grown.

So have the odds that the Pakistani government will act on such information. For six years after the 9/11 attacks, the Bush administration undermined the search for Bin Laden by organizing its alliance with Pakistan in a way that created perverse incentives -- incentives that actually encouraged the Pakistanis not to find him. It did this by providing unquestioning support to the country's military leader, President Pervez Musharraf, and by sending more than 90% of its $10 billion-plus in aid to the Pakistan army or the army-controlled government. Much of this aid is still paid today as direct "rent" for counter-terrorism operations by the army and its principal intelligence branch.

The structure of this U.S.-aid pipeline, set against the decades-long history of on-again, off-again American support for Pakistan, encouraged Pakistan's top military commanders to believe that if Bin Laden were ever captured or killed, the U.S. might reduce its support or even go home. A fugitive Bin Laden became their meal ticket.

Now these incentives have been at least partly reversed. Musharraf's popularity and authority have collapsed in Pakistan following a succession of political blunders. Bhutto's widower, Asif Ali Zardari, who leads the newly elected civilian government behind the scenes, claimed before the national vote in February -- both at home and in Washington -- that the restoration of democracy would be a much more reliable means to defeat terrorism in Pakistan than America's narrow reliance on Musharraf. Zardari's more sophisticated advisors, such as Pakistan's new ambassador at large, Husain Haqqani, a long-time professor at Boston University, understand that this theory of democracy-as-counter-terrorism is viewed with considerable skepticism at the Pentagon and inside Washington's intelligence bureaucracy.

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