Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Hunting in Afghanistan 

Atrios has the following posted to Eschaton. Originally sourced from

Reads as follows:
Jolly Old Pals
The Central Intelligence Agency did not target Al Qaeda chief Osama bin laden once as he had the royal family of the United Arab Emirates with him in Afghanistan, the agency's director, George Tenet, told the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks on the United States on Thursday.

Had the CIA targeted bin Laden, half the royal family would have been wiped out as well, he said.

What follows next is an excerpt from Steve Coll's book Ghost Wars. It is essentially a more detailed account (in part) of what the post above is referring too with respect to bin Laden's possible relationship to U.A.E. royal family. Although the reference above seems to characterize the situation as one of bin Laden playing host to the royal family in Afghanistan the situation was more than likely the reverse, or ambiguous, if even true at all. Approximate dates here are late 1998 (December) - early 1999 (February). (any bold text emphasis below is mine):
Within weeks of Sharif's [Nawaz Sharif - Pakistani Prime Minister] visit to Washington, the CIA station in Islamabad received its most promising report on bin Laden's whereabouts since the August cruise missle strikes. Agents on the ground in Afghanistan reported that bin Laden had traveled to southern Afghanistan to join an encamped desert hunting party organized by wealthy Bedouin sheikhs from the Persian Gulf.

The CIA sent its tracking team on the road, equipped with sighting equipment, satellite beacons to determine GPS coordinates, secure communications, and other spy gear. They raced out on the nomad highways that snaked through the barren desert toward Herat. Within days the team reported to the Islamabad station: They had found the hunting camp. It was an elaborately provisioned place far from any city but near an isolated airstrip big enough to handle C-130 cargo planes. The camp's tents billowed in the wind, cooled by generators and stocked with refrigerators. The tracking team reported that they strongly believed they had found bin Laden. He was a guest of the camp's Arab sheikhs, they reported, and it looked as if he would be staying for a while. There would be plenty of time to bomb the camp with precision weapons or to launch cruise missles from ships or submarines in the Arabian Sea.

Bin Laden had grown up in Bedouin tradition. Falcon hunting, especially for the elusive houbara bustard, had been a passionate and romanticized sport in Saudi Arabia and neighboring kingdoms for generations. Each year Arab sheikhs with the money to do so chased the houbara across its winter migration route. Pakistan granted special permits to the visiting Arab sheikhs, dividing its northern hills and southwestern deserts into carefully marked zones where rival royals pitched their tents and sent their falcons aloft.

One of the most passionate hunters was Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed al-Nahayan, the billionaire crown prince of Abu Dhabi in the Untied Arab Emirates. Equally devoted was Sheikh Maktoum, the leader of Dubai, another emirate in the oil-rich confederation. Scores of other fabulously rich U.A.E. notables flew to Pakistan each season to hunt. So entrenched did the alliance with Pakistan around houbara hunts become that the Pakistani air force agreed secretly to lease one of its northern air bases to the United Arab Emirates so that the sheikhs could more conveniently stage the aircraft and supplies for their hunts. Pakistani personnel maintained the air base, but the U.A.E. paid for its upkeep. They flew in and out on C-130s and on smaller planes that could reach remote hunting grounds. (Ghost Wars page 445)

- - - - -

Some of the best winter houbara grounds were in Afghanistan. Pakistani politicians had hosted Arab hunting trips there since the mid-1990s. They had introduced wealthy sheikhs to the leadership of the Taliban, creating connections for future private finance of the Islamist militia. Bin Laden circulated in this Afghan hunting world after he arrived in the country in 1996. So the CIA report that he had joined a large, stationary camp in western Afghanistan that winter seemed consistent with previous reporting about bin Laden. (Ghost Wars page 446)

With respect to George Tenet's claim that "half the royal family would have been wiped out as well," Coll explains that serious questions still remained about whether or not bin Laden was actually even present in the camp at the time:
[...] Hardly anyone in the Persian Gulf saw bin Laden as a threat serious enough to warrant the deaths of their own royalty. They would react to such a strike angrily, with unknown consequences for the United States. And if it turned out that bin Laden was not in the hunting camp after all, the anti-American reaction would make the controversy over the cruise missle strike on the al Shifa plant in Sudan the previous summer seem mild by comparison. (Ghost Wars page 447)

- - - - -

Neither the Islamabad station nor the Counterterrorist Center and Langley could offer a 100 percent guarantee that bin Laden was in the hunting camp, however. They did not have a picture of bin Laden standing outside his tent. The satellites could not take a photograph of that quality, and the tracking team could not get close enough. If they had launched a strike, they would have to accept some doubt. George Tenet, for one, was not convinced that the reporting was completely solid.

The U.S. military relied heavily on its alliances with the wealthiest Persian Gulf emirates despite their occasional support for Islamists. To even consider a strike against bin Laden they needed to be completely sure, some of those involved argued. In the American military, recalled one person involved, "Nobody wanted to say. 'Well, you blew up a camp full of U.A.E. princes and half the royal family of the U.A.E.'s dead - and you guys didn't get him.'"

Clinton's national security cabinet met to discuss their options. They had been tracking the camp for more than a week. They had learned what they could; they had to decide. Richard Clarke recommended against a cruise missle shot. George Tenet, too, recommended no. (Ghost Wars page 448)

- - - - -

With respect to decisions not to pursue cruise missle strikes against the U.A.E. hunting camps, and the later planned strike against bin Laden's Tarnak Farm encampment in Afghanistan, Coll writes:
Tenet did not widely explain his reasoning. He made clear years later that in every case where Clinton's Cabinet discussed cruise missle strikes, a decisive problem was the lack of absolute certainty that bin Laden was present. (Ghost Wars page 450)

In addition: It might also be noted that, at the time, the US and the U.A.E. had cooperated on military basing agreements and arms deals including the 1998 sale to the U.A.E. of eighty F-16 jets worth $8 billion and to be manufactured in Texas. With regard to the US military's use of U.A.E. ports Coll notes:
The port of Dubai received more port calls by the U.S. Navy than any port in the region; it was the only place in the Persian Gulf that could comfortably dock American aircraft carriers. (Ghost Wars page 447)

In summary it might be said that the U.A.E. was suspected at the time by both the United Nations and the US of supporting the Taliban with shipments of weapons being flown out of Dubai aboard the same C-130's used for the royal family's hunting excursion. And it's plausible and possible that bin Laden may have been a party to some of these arrangements including visits to U.A.E. hunting camps. However, considering Coll's research - and conclusions reached by George Tenet, Richard Clarke and others at the time - it seems speculative at best to conclude that bin Laden was definetly with the U.A.E. hunting party in late 1998 and/or early 1999. The period Tenet is referring to with respect to his comment that "half the royal family would have been wiped out."



Far out on the desert to the north dustspouts rose wobbling and augered the earth and some said they'd heard of pilgrims borne aloft like dervishes in those mindless coils to be dropped broken and bleeding upon the desert again and there perhaps to watch the thing that had destroyed them lurch onward like some drunken djinn and resolve itself once more into the elements from which it sprang. Out of that whirlwind no voice spoke and the pilgrim lying in his broken bones may cry out and in his anguish he may rage, but rage at what? And if the dried and blackened shell of him is found among the sands by travelers to come yet who can discover the engine of his ruin? ~ Cormac McCarthy Blood Meridian

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