Close, but No Cigar

In a classic case of “close, but no cigar,” Newsweek recently reported that in the early winter of 2004-2005 U.S. soldiers nearly stumbled on Osama bin Laden’s mountain hideout in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. As we approach the sixth anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks against New York and Washington, D.C., how and why is it that the man responsible for those attacks is still at large – especially after President Bush declared he wanted bin Laden “dead or alive” in the immediate aftermath of 9/11?

To begin, a manhunt is largely a needle in the haystack operation. (To provide some perspective, it took U.S. law enforcement more than five years to find Olympic Park bomber Eric Rudolph hiding in the Appalachian mountain region.) And the key to finding who you’re looking for is reliable, actionable intelligence. The problem for the United States is that bin Laden is hiding out in bin Laden country. The Afghanistan-Pakistan border area (specifically, the mountainous Waziristan region of Pakistan along the Afghan border) is familiar territory to bin Laden, who was part of the jihadist resistance to the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s. Moreover, the rugged territory favors him, not his pursuers. More importantly, local inhabitants’ loyalties are more likely to be sympathetic to bin Laden (and the ancient Pashtun honor code calls for defending guests, which bin Laden is considered), so the odds of anyone turning him in – even for a $25 million reward – are slim to none.

Although the Bush administration claims otherwise, the war in Iraq has distracted U.S. attention from the hunt for bin Laden. By definition, it is not possible to devote 100-percent attention to two things at once. Clearly, the United States has allocated more resources to Iraq – currently 160,000-plus troops and more than $400 billion spent to date – than to the pursuit of bin Laden. Also just as clear is that Saddam Hussein was never the threat that bin Laden was or is. Perhaps more grievous is that important resources in the hunt for bin Laden – Predator drones, the elite Delta Force Unit, and Arabic speakers from the Fifth Special Forces Group – were diverted from Afghanistan very early on (late 2001 and early 2002) to prepare for the war in Iraq (more than a year later).

Just as we can only wonder how the course of history be different if the spy Predator that took pictures of a tall man in white robes surrounded by a group of people – believed by many intelligence analysts to be Osama bin Laden – in the fall of 2000 had instead been an armed Predator capable of immediately striking the target, we will never know how the world would be different today if those resources had been used to kill or capture bin Laden rather than prematurely diverted for Iraq.

Most analysts seem to agree that bin Laden is no longer in operational control of al-Qaeda and that al-Qaeda likely does not have the same capabilities to strike America as it did on 9/11. Yet even if bin Laden is not the same threat he was in September 2001, he represents the heart and soul of radical Islam. And as long as he remains at large he is a constant reminder that we have not focused the war on terrorism against the real threat to the United States.

To be sure, capturing or killing bin Laden would not mean victory, but he is nonetheless an important strategic target. America would be safer, not necessarily because al-Qaeda or radical Islam would be dealt a mortal blow. Of course, followers of radical Islam would be inflamed – and there is probably little or nothing we can do to change their minds. But bin Laden’s death or capture could go a long way toward helping convince the more than 1 billion Muslims in the world – most of whom are not radicalized but, unfortunately, have a negative opinion of the United States due largely to U.S. foreign policy – that America is targeting those who attacked us on 9/11 and not waging a wider war against Islam.

Author: Charles V. Peña

Charles V. Peña is a senior fellow at the Independent Institute, a senior fellow with the Coalition for a Realistic Foreign Policy, a former senior fellow with the George Washington University Homeland Security
Policy Institute
, an adviser to the Straus Military Reform Project, and an analyst for MSNBC television. Peña is the co-author of Exiting Iraq: Why the U.S. Must End the Military Occupation and Renew the War Against al-Qaeda and author of Winning the Un-War: A New Strategy for the War on Terrorism.