Where in the World is al-Zawahiri?

During the height of the Vietnam War, Sen. George Aitken (R-Vt.) suggested that the U.S. declare victory and pull out.

More than thirty years later, that's exactly what the Pakistani military has done after a two week battle in the mountains of Waziristan, the tribal belt of Pakistan that borders on Afghanistan. Claiming "mission accomplished," Pakistani military leaders have headed to safer ground.

This was no ordinary operation. The Pervez Musharraf-led Pakistani government had a lot at stake in its success. The military offensive aimed to showcase a resounding victory over al Qaeda/Taliban remnants, while at the same time, proving Pakistan's credentials as a stellar ally in the war against terrorism.

What's more, at the time, the U.S. media seemed primed to offer Musharraf the global audience he was seeking for this ambitious exercise.

Shortly after the battle began, Pakistani spokespersons quickly declared that they had surrounded a "high value target." This "high value target" was originally thought to be Ayman al-Zawahiri, the Egyptian-born terrorist who is Osama bin Laden's right hand man and al Qaeda's most important strategist. Some television pundits were quick to declare al-Zawahiri as a more important instrument of terror than even bin Laden himself.

That was enough for American cable news networks to get their "war on terror" swerve on, and they quickly moved to wall-to-wall coverage. There were blaring banner headlines, excited news anchors, updates scrolling across the bottom of the television screen, reports by picture phone filed by suitably harried-looking reporters in the region. Military experts and pundits du jour -- who had until then been cooling their heels waiting for the capture of bin Laden -- were rushed back into the studios to comment on this impending triumph.

Pakistani military officials appeared daily on our TV screens, assuring their interviewers that the confrontation would indeed result in a high-profile capture. While Musharaff himself was a bit more circumspect in his CNN interview, but he too beamed with confidence that someone important was about to be snared.

The Pentagon, in comparison, was cautiously optimistic. Team Bush mainly wanted the public to know that the Pakistani military was fighting on its own.

The media-driven farce lasted several days until suddenly, without explanation, the cable news networks pulled the plug. That was it -- 30 for now. No explanations or apologies were offered for the overblown coverage.

When no "high-value target" materialized, news about the Pakistan's military operation quickly disappeared from cable news coverage. As is their wont, however, the networks seamlessly turned their attention to the murder and mutilation in Fallujah of four civilian employees of a private security firm.

A few days later we would learn in less widely reported stories that al-Zawahiri had either escaped through a series of mountain tunnels or, more likely, was never in the area in the first place. We would also hear an audiotape of an angry al-Zawahiri urging Pakistanis to overthrow President Pervez Musharraf.

By Mar. 29, nearly two weeks after the operation began, the Sydney Morning Herald was reporting a Pakistani withdrawal "after militants released captured soldiers and politicians, and tribal leaders negotiated the handing over of foreign militants." Brigadier Mahmood Shah, the regional security chief, claimed that his troops had completed a successful campaign, supposedly killing 60 suspected militants and capturing 163. But then, 600 other such armed extremists, he admitted, are still out there.

The Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) has been the proverbial waterloo for armies mightier than that of Musharraf. In the International Herald Tribune, Milt Bearden, the CIA chief in Pakistan from 1986-89, describes the Pashtuns, the ethnic majority in FATA, as people who "have been armed to the teeth since the first bow was strung." He predicts that any battle waged against this community of warriors "will be a tough and unrewarding slog," as various armies have discovered over the past 2,000 years, including the Soviets and the British colonial army.

Bearden has turned out to be right.

Bill Berkowitz is a ccolumnist with WorkingForChange.com.

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