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Is Osama in Parachinar?

By

Dr Ghayur Ayub

I was born in a village six miles from Parachinar and received my primary education in a local school. Since then, I have been visiting Parachinar off and on till the present day. During all this time, I haven’t noticed any major changes in the town. The buildings, the streets and everything else seem the same. It has a close-knit community where everyone knows every other person. Z.A Bhutto fell in love with the town for its location, natural beauty and of course the militia-mess. He decided to open a medical college. A huge area was allocated for the purpose along Parachinar-Sadda road which became the only major constructions erected in the town all these years. I lived and worked in these buildings in the early eighties as surgical specialist running the surgical department of the newly built Agency HQ Hospital.
Before I come to the topic of whether it is possible for Osama to hide in Parachinar, let me say a few words about Kurrum Agency. Kurrum Agency is like a beak of a bird pecking into Afghanistan enclosing itself from three sides by that country. It is divided into three areas; upper Kurrum inhabited mainly by Shia; Lower Kurrum occupied primarily by Sunnis; and FR Kurrum populated only by Sunnis. The latter is also called ‘Alaaqa-e-Ghair’ making it a ‘no-man land’. Here, the indirect control of political agent has lost its effectiveness. The second largest town, Sadda, sits at the mouth of this area. Parachinar, on other hand, is at the peak of the beak in upper Kurrum where the offices of the high civilian and military officials are located. So Parachinar is not only in a comparatively protected area but is also the hub of the Shia community. A few Sunni families which had been living in Parachinar for decades were forcefully evacuated at the height of Shia-Sunni strife two years ago. I saw the burnt-out and smoke-dusted rubbles in the two main Bazaars of the town when I went to contest elections for National Assembly in February 2008. The only Sunni mosque in the middle of the town was locked giving a deserted look.
There are strong built-in anti Taliban sentiments among the Shias of Parachinar. In early 2002 when Taliban were on the run, my sources told me that Osama along with his close associates might be hiding in Parachinar as it was the closest town to Tora Bora. I decided to write a book on this subject and during my research I found that at one stage in the early 1990s, he had actually rented one of our houses in university town Peshawar. I also found that the environment was too hostile for him to take refuge in Parachinar. The Shias had already killed a few Taliban and handed over others to the authorities. So, instead, I decided to write a part-fiction and part-factual novel revolving around Osama and a local Shia leader. I labelled the book ‘Breaking Barriers’ and published it in UK, USA, Canada and Pakistan. In my research during writing the book, I also found out that if he ever wanted to take refuge in Kurrum Agency, it could only be in the FR area close to Sadda. So when I read the essay ‘Finding Osama bin Laden’ in MIT International Review, published on 17 February 2009, I was taken aback.
The work is based on application of bio-geographic theories and satellite imagery. The former consists of two theories; first, the distance-decay theory which states that “as one goes further away from a precise location, there is an exponential decline in the turnover of species and a lower probability of finding the same composition of species”; And second, the theory of island biogeography which states that “large and close islands will have higher immigration rates and support more species with lower extinction rates than small isolated islands” The study is carried out by two professors of geography namely Thomas W. Gillespie and John A. Agnew at UCLA who, to my knowledge, had never been to the region.
They presume that by using bio-geographic theories and remote sensing data over global, regional and local spatial scales, they would be able to identify where Osama could be living. At global scale, they used Tora Bora as his last known location to create distance-decay probability maps over satellite imagery. At regional scale, they overlaid the distance-decay map on the city islands to identify cities with the highest probability of his presence based on island biogeography theories. At local scale, they searched the city with the highest probability of his taking shelter according to the six life history characteristics. Those characteristics include his; height; health; physical protection; privacy; body guards; and his protection from aerial view. Accordingly to these characteristics, he needed; tall building; a generator; walls over three meters; space between the structure; and trees to cover him from air viewing.
The professors concluded that OBL could only take shelter in Parachinar as the town fits the requirements they outlined, stating that ‘the further he moves from his last reported location into the more secular parts of Pakistan or into India, the greater the probability that he will find himself in different cultural surroundings, thereby increasing the probability of his being captured or eliminated.’ This statement is wrong on two accounts; first, OBL lived all his life moving into difficult terrains when he was chased by CIA in the nineties even before the attacks of 9/11; secondly, he had equal opportunities to move to other parts of eastern Afghanistan and take refuge with local Taliban who already went underground and with whom he had been living for well over ten years. So why to move to a new unchartered place?
Writing further, they say that OBL should be in a region inhabited by people with similar ‘religious and political beliefs.’ Again, the authors got it wrong as Parachinar would be the most hostile place for OBL vis-à-vis his religious cum political beliefs. Then they say that OBL has a small entourage of body guards. As I mentioned earlier Parachinar is a place where a new comer is spotted easily not to speak of a group of foreign body guards. Arguing in favour of their theory they state, that ‘Parachinar has a long history of housing mujahideen during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in the 1980s’. Wrong again; the local Shias did not allow Mujahideens to stay in and around Parachinar during Afghan resistance in 1980s. Similarly, when a group of Shia Hazara tribe migrated and occupied a place near village Zeran in the vicinity of Parachinar, the Sunnis from nearby village of Teri Mengal, complained to Gen Fazal Haq, the then governor of NWFP, who shifted them to Quetta. In such atmosphere it was difficult to house mujahideen soldiers in Parachinar.
They also talk about OBL living in caves. The only place which has dwelling caves in Kurrum agency is Khomasay, near my late mother’s village Badama which is about 8-10 kilometres from Parachinar. As a young boy I used to go to that village and play with my friends. The dwellings are so small that I can’t imagine a tall person like OBL with long history of chronic illness would survive for a long time. So this theory also looses credentials. Further more, the professors contradict their own theory when they say that ‘Smaller cities would greatly reduce his security and privacy, and there are only a small number of structures that appear well-protected in smaller towns’. Parachinar is a small town which hasn’t changed for decades, and protecting OBL would be a phenomenal task.
Lastly, the possibility of three buildings projected as the most probable places is pretty non-convincing. Unless they suspect, the residence of political agent, governor’s rest house, the residences of government officials, the militia-mess, shalowzan house, the hospital or even the jail, I can’t think of any other place, where Osama could be hiding in Parachinar. Theories made on assumptions without knowing about the ground realities could be dangerous especially in the current global environment when western powers are keeping a close watch on a nuclear Pakistan which is facing destabilisation at the hands of the Taliban. And what about those people who believe that OBL is not alive. Late Benazir Bhutto was one of them. Talking to David Frost on Al Jazeera in 2007, she categorically stated that Osama Bin Laden was dead. Her statement was downplayed by the world media for reasons only known to them. The main question is; is Osama alive, if he is; where is he? I don’t believe he is in Parachinar as suggested by the two professors from UCLA.

 

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