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29 November 2010

The Bin Laden “hero” problem

One US embassy cable released on WikiLeaks raises more questions about the Afghan war strategy.

By Tony Hudson

The United States has often been accused, sometimes unfairly, of not understanding the culture of other nations and people. Following the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, these misunderstandings (or should that be “misunderestimations”?) appeared even more pronounced. The very idea that the US military would be greeted as liberators seems laughable. How could Americans have believed that? 

Well, according to one of the recently (Wiki-)leaked US embassy cables: they didn’t. The cable in question, from 1999, shows that US diplomats were discussing the fact that Osama Bin Laden had the potential to be regarded as a folk hero in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The cable states that:

We frequently hear reports that some in the lower-middle and lower classes, both urban and rural, consider [Bin Laden] an Islamic hero because the US has named him “Public Enemy Number One”. That said, it’s our impression that the majority of Muslims, at least in Pakistan, do not necessarily support this view. The pending [US government] distribution of [Bin Laden] “Wanted” posters and matchbooks in Pakistan may increase [Bin Laden]’s stature as a kind of folk hero.

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It appears the US government had no delusions that they would be heralded as heroes, should they pursue Bin Laden in the region. The January 2009 cable admits that the Taliban had done a better job of communicating their image of Bin Laden than the US had, stating that “the Taliban have pre-empted us consistently since August”, while the US response was “muted and delayed”.

This raises some rather interesting questions. First, if the US government was aware of this problem more than two years before the invasion, what made officials think that reshaping Afghanistan (already referred to by some as the Graveyard of Empires) would be successful? They were hunting Bin Laden with renewed vigour now, after all. 

Second, was the US government naive enough to believe that the events of 9/11 were enough to secure the sympathy of the Afghan and Pakistani people? Surely bombing their country would negate that sympathy if it did exist. 

Third, supposing that the US was completely realistic about the realities of opinions among the Afghan and Pakistani populations and had taken on board the points made in this cable, why was there not a better, more comprehensive plan put into effect for the aftermath of driving out the Taliban? Whether you support the war in Afghanistan or not, you have to admit that it has been handled appallingly in terms of winning over the hearts and minds of the people.

The cable suggests a number of measures to convince the Afghans and Pakistanis that Bin Laden is not the Islamic crusader that the Taliban have made him out to be. These measures make sense, but there is no evidence that any of them was ever implemented. This leads to the fourth question: why not? 

Given a realistic idea of how Bin Laden was perceived locally, the tactics of the invasion seem even more woefully inadequate than they would have been if the US had gone in blind.