Monday, Feb 25, 2002
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By Sridhar Krishnaswami
Washington, Feb. 24. At a time when there is heightened speculation on the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden, including reports out of Britain that the Saudi fugitive might be holed up in Kashmir, senior officials of the Bush administration are of the view that the top leader of the Al-Qaeda is still near the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.
The New York Times, quoting unidentified senior administration officials, said that fresh evidence and indications were that Osama bin Laden survived the heavy bombings of the Tora Bora mountain complex.
At the same time, the officials were cautioning that the new evidence was far from being definitive. "We are quite certain he is alive and we think he is somewhere between Afghanistan and Pakistan. It may be that he moves back and forth between the two," the paper reported an official as saying.
The new or somewhat changed view that Osama is alive will put to rest several of the existing theories on the Saudi extremist _ he died in the extensive bombings of the Tora Bora complex; he could not have survived prolonged periods without dialysis for his kidney ailment; or that he may have escaped to Iran and Yemen, not to ignore other destinations such as Pakistan or Chechnya.
After an intensive effort to nab him "dead or alive", in the initial weeks of the Operation Enduring Freedom, the Bush administration has not been openly talking about nabbing Osama. In fact, in the recent past, the administration had not said anything about Osama at all.
But officials are quick to say that this objective is very much on the cards. In the present scheme of things, the paper argues that killing or capturing Osama appear only to be a "long-term proposition". The new thinking on the whereabouts of Osama would seem to run counter to what the President of Pakistan, Pervez Musharraf, has been saying in the last few months, including his recent trip to Washington.
Gen. Musharraf, who at one time maintained that Osama could not have survived without dialysis, changed his position recently here when he argued that he could be dead or alive, but in Afghanistan. Apparently, Washington does not seem to think highly about what Gen. Musharraf has been saying about Osama or for that matter about Daniel Pearl, the abducted and murdered reporter of The Wall Street Journal, whom the Pakistani leader was confident of being alive. "Musharraf's public statements about Osama and Pearl make one question the quality of the intelligence he is acting on," a senior American diplomat was quoted in the paper.
The quality of intelligence aside, the new theory about the whereabouts of Osama will further question the effectiveness of the sealing-off of the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan.
On a different level, it is surmised that the American operations against Osama in Afghanistan may have netted about one third of the "core leadership" of the Al Qaeda, the core being defined by the White House to be between 20 and 25 key personalities.
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