September 11th, 2008
06:59 PM ET

In Afghanistan bin Laden using culture to buy loyalty

Editor's Note:
We are devoting many posts today to the anniversary of 9/11, with first-hand accounts, insight, and commentary dedicated to that day seven years ago that changed our world.
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Nic Robertson | BIO
Senior International Correspondent

It’s hard for me to see clearly what’s on the blurry cell phone video from Afghanistan.

Are there children and women under those blankets, were as many as 90 people killed in a US air strike as Afghan and UN officials suggest. The countries lawmakers believe so, they want strict controls put US troops. I just don’t know.

But what is painfully clear to me the strengths and weaknesses the coalition had in it’s pursuit of Osama bin Laden in the weeks following the 9/11 attacks are not only unchanged after 7 years, but threaten to unravel the hunt of the worlds most wanted terrorist.

When bin Laden fled with hundreds of die-hard al Qaeda fighters to the mountains of Tora Bora in western Afghanistan for his last stand against the coalition, the coalition made a fatal mistake.

They had the superiority in the air. The spy planes or drones to track and locate the man who had declared war on the west 3 years earlier and the bombers to pound the caves he and his followers were hiding in. Ground troops were almost an after thought. Small teams of ‘Special Forces’ hired local warlords to cut off bin Laden’s escape.

In a London café recently, a Libyan who fought along side bin Laden in Afghanistan long before 9/11 told me he knew how the al Qaeda leader escaped. Not over the nearby border in to Pakistan as widely surmised, but back in to Afghanistan to the assured security of old tribal allies. To Warlords he could count on because their ancient customs and rigid codes of conduct forbade them to turn him in.

Capturing or killing bin Laden failed because too much faith was put in air power alone. Today the coalition’s hunt for bin Laden is unraveling because of the same reliance on airpower.

With every child or woman killed in the hunt for bin Laden or the Taliban, the threads that bind the people of Afghanistan to their President Hamid Karzai weaken. As they tear so the tolerance for the coalition that keeps Karzai in power stretches to breaking point.

In the minds of Afghans, the Soviets who occupied the country two decades ago were butchers whose barbaric tactics killed hundreds of thousands of their countrymen. A decade after putting in over 100,000 troops, the ‘Red Army’ slunk back to their collapsing empire defeated. They lost because they so enraged the Afghan's tribesmen. Across the country they turned on them in droves.

The Coalition uses wholly different tactics than the Soviets and goes out of it’s way to avoid collateral damage and civilian casualties, but the Afghan’s are finding it hard to tell the difference. When their President and their Parliamentarians tell them US forces killed 90 people, most of them children, they find it hard to feel anything else other than anger.

A couple of months ago I met Malalai Joya, a young Parliamentarian who is one of Karzai’s biggest critics. She challenges him for failing to rid the government of warlords and corruption. She is an ardent supporter of the democratic and human rights changes the West wants for Afghans. But she had a stark warning for me. “I know the people of my country” she said “they will not tolerate occupation for long”.

When a reformer like Joya says this I know patience with the coalition must be running out. And if time is running out for US troops in Afghanistan so time is running out in the hunt for Bin Laden.

According to Hamid Mir, the last journalist to interview bin Laden, the al Qaeda leader was last seen in the west of Afghanistan in early 2005. Mir, whom I met in Pakistan recently says he talked with one of Bin Laden’s guards who told him the al Qaeda leader narrowly missed capture by British forces in south Afghanistan late 2004. He narrowly escaped after a three day fire fight. British forces have not verified this account of a battle to capture bin Laden.

But perhaps more interesting is what the guard had to say about how they’ve avoided capture so long, by local support. The guard told Mir al Qaeda fighters married local women and by so doing ensured undying protection from the tribes they married in to.

Mir reports finding shopkeepers in Eastern Afghanistan who were proud to tell him they’d sold food to feed the al Qaeda leader. bin Laden is using culture to buy loyalty.

In tribal society when some one is killed a blood debt must be paid. Money given or another life taken in return. Disputes can span generations, it’s no different when coalition forces kill innocents... however unfortunate the circumstances. The debt and the anger to have it repaid in blood is growing.

Where bin Laden is able to use local culture to his advantage, the coalition is losing with every air strike that goes wrong. They lose what little leverage they had over the loyalties of the tribes bin Laden hides among.

In the past few years, as coalition casualties in Afghanistan have climbed beyond those in Iraq, I’ve heard solders and officers vent their frustrations privately away from the camera. Many feel let down, the resources they need are not there.

Officers don’t like to admit on camera they don’t have enough troops but in some cases are so strapped for soldiers they are putting car mechanics and logisticians in the front line positions. With troops so thinly spread the reliance on air power goes up, not just to defend them but to find their targets in the vast mountainous country.

There are just over 60,000 NATO troops in Afghanistan. About half are US forces. That’s less than half the number of troops in Iraq. Plus Iraq is significantly smaller and has it’s own security forces totaling over half a million now. Afghanistan doesn’t even have close to one tenth of troops anywhere close to being 'battle ready.'

The shortage of ground troops that so hampered the early efforts to catch the al Qaeda leader now appears not only to be one of the biggest factors for why he is still on the run but if air strikes continue to cause high collateral casualities may well contribute to the biggest setback at bringing him to justice. The loss of freedom for US troops to hunt him down in Afghanistan.

soundoff (14 Responses)
  1. Oskar

    This article may have put the finger on the pulse. I basically agree with the thesis of the article. Bremer totally screwed up Iraq and perhaps the same flawed thinking by the White House followed through in Afghanistan. Military commanders where not allowed to follow due military process in either theater. Had they been, bin Laden would be maggot food.
    But we need to understand that Islam is not just a religion. It is a code of conduct even if thought flawed by Western standards. While some of those codes may deliberately keep Muslims ignorant and poor forever, it does bind them together for a cause.
    New thought is needed because Bushes war on terror will bankrupt us all well beyond the term of is highly flawed presidency. Unfortunately McBush is of the mind set that this is another Vietnam and that wars of insurgencies are comparable to football games where there is a clear winner and loser. McCain (Bush) just doesn’t get it and Palin is clueless.

    September 11, 2008 at 8:32 pm |
  2. SallyDM

    Send in Rambo..he'll take care of business.

    September 11, 2008 at 6:09 pm |
  3. Morgan Painter

    If I remember correctly, Bin Laden was broadcast on the Al Jazeera network proclaiming there would be "attacks of unprecedented nature." That means he had full knowledge and was bragging to all the pro-terror people something big and different was going to happen. There have been connections between the hijackers and Bin Laden that indicate he or his close associates were the planners of the attack.
    True to the cowardly nature of terrorism, he was broadcast again a few days later claiming to have no part in the attack. He wanted to be praised for the event without having any of the blame.

    September 11, 2008 at 5:43 pm |
  4. Matt

    One of my teachers (from India) said it best, "Never underestimate the power of Islam."

    There are strong networks there. You can pay all the money in the world to some of these guys to take you to bin Laden, but in the end when you arrive where he's supposed to be, they'll say, "Ohhhh...too bad. It looks like he left before we got here." The CIA has been on a wild goose chase through the border regions of Pakistan an Afghanistan for years.

    If bin Laden keeps this chase going, he'll have the whole Muslim world mad at the U.S. (Yes, I went there: Muslim. There is more to it as even Muslims will fight other Muslims, but rest assured...).

    Is it really worth catching him if the chase brings more death and hatred than the 9/11 attacks themselves? Justice at any cost is not justice!

    Then again, perhaps the U.S. is perfectly aware of the situation *ahem* and simply wants to keep bin Laden on the run till he's dead.

    September 11, 2008 at 5:36 pm |
  5. Matt

    The other question is if Bin Laden is ever caught/killed, whether it should ever be mentioned. The announcement might be the greatest terrorist recruiting tool ever.

    Eshan – You can't be serious. There are home vidoes showing the conspirators meeting in America and in foreign countries as well as some of them meeting with Bin Laden. There are all types of relationships going/used to go between the Taliban/Al Qaeda/ Pakistani ISI/Saudi Arabia. Do some research and you will see what actually happened.

    September 11, 2008 at 5:19 pm |
  6. Matt

    Brian P. – Didn't we hook up Saddam with some of those chemical weapons? During their war with Iran?

    September 11, 2008 at 5:00 pm |
  7. Michael

    The U.S. incursions into Pakistan suggest that the Americans continue to think the Sheik Osama bin Laden is located in the border tribal regions. Maybe so, but he and his comrades may just as likely be elsewhere in Afghanistan or out of the region entirely. The new intensity of interest in Osama's death or capture also suggests that there is a U.S. election going on and the man's demise could have a dramatic impact on the outcome. President Bush's apparent orders in July to permit Special Forces into Pakistan lends credence to that theory. It would have been better if those orders had been issued years ago. Osama has not been timid and he has taken advantage of U.S. and NATO's timidity.

    September 11, 2008 at 3:49 pm |
  8. Norm

    BinLaden is part of a wealthy Saudi Arabia family.
    This family has been longtime friends to the Bush family.
    BinLaden is not living in a cave. He is enjoying the life of a wealthy son and can pretty much come and go as he pleases, since the Saudis kicked the U.S. military out of their country. Why did you think we were asked to remove our military?

    September 11, 2008 at 3:27 pm |
  9. Vince in CA

    Ehsan September 11th, 2008 2:32 pm ET

    I am amzaed to see that some people still think that a cartoon character wearing flipflops eating cheetos in a cave overseas brought the Twin towers down.

    Those qualities don't mean he's a stupid individual. And with the advancement of technology it is very possible he was the main planner or overseer. If we were to think like that then most people in the middle east and that part of world are incapable of accomplishing anything.

    September 11, 2008 at 3:12 pm |
  10. Brian P.

    Mr. Holmes above should be corrected: Iraq did have weapons of mass destruction, of the chemical variety. That's historical fact. As far as nuclear weapons, no missiles or warheads were reported to have been found, but if you'd been paying close enough attention to the news headlines over the last several months, you would have heard about the many tons of yellowcake uranium that had been found in Iraq. This material was recently transported to Canada (secretly) over the summer to be used for energy production. To say that Saddam Hussein never had any nuclear fissile material is incorrect. He had it, it was found, and it was recently shipped out of Iraq. This was not publicized, but you can find information on it if you look.

    With regard to Osama Bin Laden, the coalition needs carte blanche to be able to cross the border into Pakistan and attack the militants at their bases of operation. Right now, we're trying to fight this conflict with one hand tied behind our backs. I am heartened to hear that we've recently conducted some raids and attacks on targets inside Pakistan. It's about time.

    September 11, 2008 at 3:00 pm |
  11. Ryan

    I had no idea how bad Nic Robertson's grammar is. Nearly every apostrophe use is flawed. There are run-on, fragment, and nonsenical statements all over this article. That being said, it's a good article, and I wonder why I haven't heard more on the topics of bin Laden's safe harbor in the villages of Afghanistan and the lack of resources the coalition endures in their struggle there. It seems that the Afghani conflict has been ignored due to the high publicity of the Iraq war. But then, back in March 2003, I was loudly vocalizing my contempt for an unnecessary war when we were already fighting one in a completely unrelated country, so I guess I knew this was going to happen. Whoever leads our country in 2009 needs to clearly and reasonably address our nation's foreign policies – it's the only way to truly stop terrorism in America.

    September 11, 2008 at 2:53 pm |
  12. Ehsan

    I am amzaed to see that some people still think that a cartoon character wearing flipflops eating cheetos in a cave overseas brought the Twin towers down.


    September 11, 2008 at 2:32 pm |
  13. Dave Holmes

    It is truly sad that we haven’t caught Bin Laden. Our country went to war with a country that had no weapons of mass destruction. Although Sadam Husen had no love for our country, Iraq was not responsible for 9/11. We did rid the country of a brutal dictator, but at what cost? The money factor is huge, but you can’t put a price on the human factor? You can’t put a price on the Americans who have die in Iraq, and you can’t put a price on the death of innocent Iraqis. The scary thought is that we may have created more anti-American sentiment. We should have been deploying troops to Afghanistan, not Iraq. We should have caught Bin Laden by now. We should have handled Iraq in a political manner, not by force. I was as upset as anyone after 9/11. I wanted to see the person responsible brought to justice, and that still hasn’t happened. I’m more upset now than after 9/11. The current administration has made mistake after mistake; it kills me that we’ve had to put up with it.

    September 11, 2008 at 1:27 pm |
  14. Cindy

    I often thought that Bin Laden had help getting away. I figured that someone hid him out in Afghanistan until it was safe for him to move over into Pakistan. The U.S. did mess up by not having enough people on the ground to try to find him that way along with the planes and such.

    But what is the past is the past. Trying to find him now is a whole totally different creature in itself.


    September 11, 2008 at 12:44 pm |