The Vanishing Imam

Amid the proclamations of a great and glorious victory by the pro-war pundits – and their smugly triumphant braying that opponents of this war were dead wrong about the "Afghan quagmire" – Reul Marc Gerecht injects a note of realism into the discussion by noting that the apparent failure to kill or capture Bin Laden is a major problem for the War Party, one that may haunt them in the months and years to come. THE BIN LADEN MYTHOS

"Mr. bin Laden may become, among many Muslim militants, a modern-day version of a vanished imam," avers Gerecht, "a lost spiritual guide whose hoped-for return will empower the oppressed and vanquish the strong." If Bin Laden escapes, one of the ironic unintended consequences of US intervention in Afghanistan may be to valorize a moral monster, to empower the terrorist leader and his followers rather than neutralize them.


The analogy with another plague, AIDS, is chilling: the development of a drug "cocktail" to prevent the onset of the disease in infected patients has, paradoxically, led to the evolution of a drug-resistant strain, and the AIDS virus has not only survived but been strengthened. In our efforts to stop the spread of the terrorist disease, and target its source, the US may have only succeeded in creating a bomb-resistant strain of the Bin Ladenite virus: "If we hunt for him and bomb his sanctuaries but don’t find and kill him," Gerecht points out, "we will only add to his appeal and set him up for the next spectacular act of terrorism."


Yet the US appears to have given up the essential task of finding out whether the Invisible Imam is alive and well and living in a cave somewhere, and blithely moved on to other targets. After a flurry of reports that Bin Laden had fled to Pakistan, and stories about how the honeycomb of caves abandoned by fleeing Al Qaeda and Taliban forces was being systematically searched for evidence of the Muslim Pimpernel, suddenly all the urgency seems to have gone out of this supposedly massive manhunt. What’s up with that?


Could it be that it is much more convenient to have Bin Laden around? Even if he is dead, wouldn’t the announcement of this fact give the American people a "premature" sense of closure? Surely a dangerous sentiment to an administration which envisions a protracted conflict extending into the indefinite future.


At any rate, the search for Bin Laden, we are told, is being downplayed in favor of the hunt for Abu Zubeida, described as Al Qaeda’s chief of operations. US policy planners and their pet pundits, already bored with Afghanistan, are turning their sights on new targets: Somalia, the Philippines, Yemen, Iraq, and even Iran. Forget Osama, seems to be the not-so-subliminal message here, and let’s get on with the "real" business of going after these other guys. Can the flightiness of our national policymakers and their amen corner in the media really be this severe?


The Donald Rumsfeld Fan Club – formerly known as the American media – is so busy celebrating the "victory" of the Imperial forces over a rabble of backwoods savages that they seem to have forgotten all about the one war aim that has the virtually unanimous support of the American people: getting Bin Laden.


They seem to have remembered it in Britain, however: the [Monday, Jan. 14] Times noted that "the quest for the al-Qaeda leader has been carefully downgraded in the past ten days" in favor of vaguer war aims. In a report that could not have appeared in any American newspaper, the Times informs us that "American military chiefs have made a subtle change in Washington’s war aims to help to mask their continued failure to capture Osama bin Laden and his most senior lieutenants." Instead of killing or capturing the top Al Qaeda leadership, including Bin Laden, now the goal is to "disrupt" the terrorist network in a more general sense. Notice the change in rhetoric: we have gone from "uprooting" Al Qaeda to merely "disrupting" its operations. The longer one gazes at this great "victory" of ours, the more it looks like a defeat.


While Pentagon spokeswoman Victoria Clarke keeps insisting that "this war is not just about Osama bin Laden and [Mullah] Omar," the American people have a somewhat less nuanced view. According to a CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll, 55 percent say that the war will not be a success until and unless Bin Laden is captured or killed.


As the newly-installed "provisional" President is hailed as Afghanistan’s George Washington, and news reports of massive aid to Afghanistan and the "liberation" of its women fill the airwaves and dominate the headlines, ordinary Americans are bound to scratch their heads and think, if only to themselves: "But what does any of this have to do with avenging the horror of 9/11 – or averting the next one?" As time wears on, and the search for Bin Laden turns up nothing, our alleged military triumph will be seen for what it really is: a political defeat, and a Pyrrhic "victory."


Christopher Hitchens brays triumphantly that the "left" was wrong about the war, and laughingly exults that we have "bombed a country out of the Stone Age" – even as the dreaded burqa returns. American social conservatives such as William Kristol hail the "liberation" of Afghanistan by US military action – even as some major aspects of that "liberation" turn out in ways that may be surprising. The death of irony has been widely reported, yet it seems to be alive and kicking, tweaking the noses of the pompous and mocking the pretensions of the powerful. The paradoxical consequence of this war as described by Gerecht is an extra large dose of the bitterest irony:

"The Middle East is a brutal land of paradoxes. Though we should all hope that Osama bin Laden and his followers have already received their punishment from the United States Air Force, it is entirely possible that the war in Afghanistan will make Al Qaeda a more focused, careful, and lethal organization. Time will tell. In the meantime, American Marines ought to be all over Tora Bora and northern Pakistan."


The great paradox of our Afghan "victory" is that it has all the earmarks of a disastrous defeat. If, as seems likely, our deadly enemy has gotten away, then his stock in the Muslim world as the Vanished Imam goes way up. And we have vastly contributed to constructing the Bin Laden mythos by dropping a ridiculous leaflet showing a crudely retouched image of Osama – shaved and in a rather tacky business suit – claiming "your leader has deserted you." To the genius in the government’s employ who thought that one up goes a special award, the Harlequin, given to those whose actions make a mockery of the claim that this war is an exercise in the noblest idealism.


What, exactly, does our great "victory" consist of? Our original war aim – the elimination of Al Qaeda as a viable force – has not been accomplished. Most of Al Qaeda’s core cadres have melted into the wilds of Central Asia, fleeing to Pakistan and Iran, and fanning out all over the region. Furthermore, our clumsy and heavy-handed intervention, our focusing on unseating the Taliban and installing the Northern Alliance in power, has destabilized the entire region – and brought Pakistan and India to the brink of all-out war.


Neoconservative boy wonder Andrew Sullivan seems to have gotten around strictures against uncloseted gays in the military by appointing himself commander in chief of the laptop bombardiers. Aside from proffering his strategic advice to the Pentagon – suggesting, at one point, that we use nuclear weapons – Field Marshall Sullivan clearly sees his job as hectoring his fellow journalists when they show insufficient zeal for the war effort. Around mid-November, Sullivan was crowing

"Would anyone have guessed that the Taliban would have essentially abandoned Kabul by now? Or that Washington would be trying to rein in military success? So much for the New York Times‘ prediction of ‘quagmire.’ (I notice that the Times today cannot bring itself to celebrate this success. Why not? What’s their problem?) What we are dealing with now is the first class conundrum of sweeping success."


Not so fast. Here it is mid-January and we can’t be so sure that the Afghan quagmire has been avoided. After all, a quagmire isn’t really a quagmire until more than a few months have passed. Yet already we are hearing at least two cheers for "nation-building" coming from what passes for the Right, and this [Sunday] morning we have the considered opinion of at least one powerful Democratic Senator that US troops must be part of an occupying force of "peacekeepers." The US has already been dragged into the role of mediating age-old Afghan vendettas, and propping up an inherently unstable regime, but even that quagmire may not be the deepest.


The US military is projecting a six-year war, with targets extending from Baghdad to Bali and an expenditure of resources that will rival and perhaps surpass our cold war military buildup. Like all government program and activities, war is prone to "mission creep": so many careers, incomes, and profit margins are tied up in its continuation that it is rendered practically immortal. From getting Bin Laden to toppling the Taliban to restoring "order" to a country that has always been mired in chaos, the mission gets bigger, broader, and more grandiose as time goes by, until, in the end, it amounts to – what? A quest for world hegemony? And that will be the biggest and most dangerous quagmire of all.

Author: Justin Raimondo

Justin Raimondo passed away on June 27, 2019. He was the co-founder and editorial director of, and was a senior fellow at the Randolph Bourne Institute. He was a contributing editor at The American Conservative, and wrote a monthly column for Chronicles. He was the author of Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement [Center for Libertarian Studies, 1993; Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2000], and An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard [Prometheus Books, 2000].