U.S. Faces a Monumentous Task in Pursuit of Bin Laden

Los Angeles Times, December 28, 2003

With the Al Qaeda terrorist threat in the United States raised to orange, and with Saddam Hussein’s capture fresh in mind, the question is: Will Osama bin Laden be next? Here are five reasons why it won’t be easy.

The U.S. has committed far more people and resources to Iraq than to Afghanistan and environs, where Bin Laden has taken refuge since 1996. The U.S. has about 130,000 troops in Iraq, compared with 10,000 in Afghanistan. Furthermore, Afghanistan has fewer trained law enforcement personnel than Iraq, a smaller international military presence and limited intelligence-gathering capability. Since Sept. 11, 2001, the United States has spent $11 billion a year on its military forces in Afghanistan and only $900 million annually on reconstruction aid, a fraction of what it has spent in Iraq over the last eight months.

In its haste to win a war against terrorism, the U.S. failed to root out Bin Laden’s Al Qaeda network and its Afghan protectors, the Taliban, before moving on to Iraq. Although routed on the battlefield, the Taliban was allowed to melt into the Afghan countryside or escape into Pakistan, which had been its ally and mentor before 9/11. The absence of a U.S. military presence in vast swathes of Afghan territory makes this easier, allowing remnants of the Taliban to regroup and provide sanctuary to Al Qaeda. Although there is no likelihood of the Taliban’s return to power, it continues to pose a security threat. Proceeds of increased narcotics production in the Afghan countryside, estimated to earn poppy growers and traffickers an amount equal to half the Afghan gross domestic product, can finance a guerrilla war and an evasion-and-protection operation for Bin Laden for some time.

Unlike the hunt for Hussein, the one for Bin Laden is not completely in U.S. hands. The search for the terrorist leader depends on local Afghan warlords and the cooperation of Pakistani authorities. Frustrating the pursuit is the fact that the agendas of these warlords and local tribal chieftains often do not include a commitment to U.S. strategic objectives. Furthermore, elements within Pakistan’s intelligence service, as well as lower-level government functionaries, sympathize with Bin Laden’s anti-Western message. Pushtun tribes on both sides of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border adhere to a strict tribal code, called Pushtunwali, that calls for giving sanctuary to fellow believers, something Al Qaeda is known to have exploited.

Pushtun warlords and Pakistani tribal administrators can slow the flow of intelligence, throw the search for Bin Laden off track, even protect him in his mountainous redoubts. By contrast, the U.S. troops looking for Hussein could interrogate his family and clan and did not have to depend on undependable intermediaries.

Geography hurt Hussein but favors Bin Laden. The former Iraqi dictator had to hide in farmlands around his native Tikrit. The Shiite-dominated southern provinces of Iraq or the northern mountainous Kurdish zone were too hostile to him to be sanctuaries. Once he was pinned down to a house or farm, there was no escape for Hussein.

Most likely, Bin Laden is hiding somewhere in the mountainous region along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. Here are caves and narrow gorges amid mountains
12,000 feet high. The area is not easily sealed off. Even after reliable intelligence on his location is received and a military operation is mounted to capture him, it is possible for Bin Laden to escape through the caves and mountain passes. Something like that happened soon after the fall of Kabul in December 2001, when Bin Laden is thought to have evaded capture despite a fierce military operation in the mountains of Tora Bora. Then, the U.S. thought that he had been killed, only to discover later that he might still be alive.

Despite their shared hatred of the United States, Hussein and Bin Laden espouse totally different beliefs, and Bin Laden’s ideology attracts greater loyalty from his followers. Hussein turned the secular nationalist Baath Party into an instrument of power dependent on personal and clan loyalties, or on support bought with favors and money. He had no large following. Bin Laden, on the other hand, embraced terrorism as a means to promote Islamic revivalism, an ideology that seeks to re-create the world of 7th century Islam. His ideology has significant support throughout the Muslim world, even among those not directly engaged in terrorism. In the region along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, most sympathize with his Islamist worldview and consider the U.S. an enemy of Islam. Given such allegiance, there is little likelihood of intelligence tips coming from within Bin Laden’s inner circle. The U.S. would have to convince Islamists of their ideological error before they would give up their investment in a special place in paradise, which is how they view their support for Bin Laden and his terrorist
actions. Hussein was betrayed by a clan member.

Hussein had little experience in hiding and living on the run; Bin Laden has been evading one superpower or another for most of his adult life. Hussein ran from authorities in 1959, when he went into hiding after a failed attempt to kill Abdul Karim Qassim, Iraq’s military dictator. At the time, Hussein claimed that he swam the Tigris River, hid in a farmhouse in his native Tikrit and then escaped to Syria. Imprisoned after the Baath Party’s abortive 1963 coup, Hussein escaped from jail and again went into hiding. But running from Qassim’s security police as an unknown conspirator did not train Hussein for an underground life in U.S.-controlled Iraq in 2003. He was found, eight months after the fall of his regime, in the same general area where he said he had taken temporary refuge 44 years earlier.

Bin Laden gave up the comforts of a rich Saudi family to join the anti-Soviet jihad during the 1980s. Upon his return to Saudi Arabia, he became a dissident and moved to Sudan before finding refuge in Afghanistan. He has spent most of the last two decades operating underground. He learned to live in the caves and mountains of Afghanistan while fighting the Soviets. After President Clinton ordered a cruise missile attack on his likely hide-out in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan in 1998, Bin Laden enhanced security around him, and he has eluded capture ever since.