Politics & Policy

Typhoid Osama

Wishful thinking.

Question: Who does not belong on this list and why?

A. Pericles

B. William the Conqueror

C. Abigail Adams

D. Osama bin Laden

If you chose D., Osama bin Laden, you are correct. As to why — come to think of it there are a lot of reasons he should not be listed with these great historical figures, but the reason I was thinking of is that these are people who died of typhoid fever. There is a rumor afoot that Osama should be added to this list — the French daily L’Est Republicain leaked a report from French intelligence that a low-level Saudi diplomat had mentioned at a mixer in Islamabad that bin Laden had succumbed to typhoid last August somewhere in Afghanistan.

The theory is attractive. Typhoid is not a common affliction these days, but has found safe haven in some locales. The disease is spread from person to person through infected feces, so it thrives in conditions of poor sanitation like, for example, caves and safe house basements. A 1997 study in Karachi Pakistan, where the disease is endemic, showed that there was a high risk of infection from eating tainted ice cream. Can you imagine? All that effort to conceal himself from his enemies and he is done in by dessert. “Mahmoud, bring me back an ice cream. Strawberry. I’ve been dying for some.”

But Osama would really have to try to die from typhoid fever. It is a highly treatable malady. Antibiotics take care of it most of the time, and even if untreated it is only fatal in 10-30 percent of cases. Anyway what happened to the kidney dialysis story? Osama has long been said to be under treatment for some kind of kidney ailment. We even knew the place in Pennsylvania where he got the filters, so it is said. The story surfaced again this summer. A report last July in the Asia Times had important information about Osama’s health from “Abdullah,” pseudonym of the son of “Sheikh Ibrahim,” nom de jihad of the number-two man in the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. In short, an impeccable source. Bin Laden “asked all of us to pray for his health,” Abdullah said. “For the past many months he has been on dialysis and just cannot move. My father never told me where he was when he met Osama … but he was worried about his fast-waning health.” The timeline tracks with the reputed August expiration date, even if the cause does not.

But there has been no mention of anything of the sort in the jihadist chat rooms, and there surely would be some indication if bin Laden died. It would send a shock through that community, there would be no way to contain it. They might not know how, when or where he died, but the fact of it would be out there quickly. At the very least his putative successor(s) would be making their leadership bids. So any report that states that bin Laden died weeks or months ago is readily dismissible. Too bad.

In a somewhat related story, former U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage allegedly threatened to bomb Pakistan “back to the Stone Age.” He is said to have made this comment to Lieutenant General Mahmood Ahmed, head of Pakistan’s military intelligence, who had close ties to the Taliban and may have had something to do with the 9/11 attacks. A good guy to threaten. He was forced out of his position the day before we began our air campaign in Afghanistan in 2001, but his role in the events leading up to the al Qaeda attacks has never been clarified.

Since then Pakistan has been a somewhat cooperative partner in the terror war, but unfortunately has not been as forthcoming as we would like when it comes to hunting down Osama bin Laden. True, there have been some high-level terrorist takedowns inside Pakistan, such as the March 1, 2003, apprehension of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed. But when it comes to the Big Tuna, as Osama is commonly known in that part of the world, they sink into denial. He isn’t in Pakistan, the perpetual refrain. U.S. special forces not needed. Try Afghanistan.

Meanwhile, Pakistan reportedly signed a peace deal with the Taliban that would give them a safe haven in parts of Waziristan along the Afghan border. The Pakistan Dawn reports that Taliban leader Mullah Omar was instrumental in brokering the agreement. There really must be limits on what the United States will accept in circumstances like this. The Taliban cannot be allowed to reconstitute in relative safety, nor establish a permanent safe zone for fugitives like bin Laden. We have shown willingness to use force in that area, for example in the January 2006 strike on an al Qaeda “safe” house in the village of Damadola, and the raid on the al Qaeda camp at Danda Saidgai the same month. If there has been similar activity lately is has not been widely reported. President Bush stated recently that U.S. forces will not enter Pakistan unless invited, which I hope was simply a means of establishing plausible deniability for when we actually do go in. Particularly after former President Clinton went mental on Fox News Sunday when confronted about his own failure to do what was necessary with respect to bin Laden. We have far more cause now than the Clinton crowd ever had, and time is running short for team Bush. Will the president consider his administration to be successful if he leaves office with bin Laden still at large? We may not be able to count on tainted ice cream to get the job done.

 – James S. Robbins is senior fellow in national-security affairs at the American Foreign Policy Council, a trustee for the Leaders for Liberty Foundation, and author of Last in Their Class: Custer, Picket and the Goats of West Point. Robbins is also an NRO contributor.

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