Afghanistan Crossroads

Whatever happened to bin Laden?

Osama bin Laden - remember him? Where is he, and is the U.S. getting closer to killing or capturing him?

Those are the questions hovering over several recent developments in the Afghanistan war: the capture of Afghan Taliban military leader Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar,  the killing of two key Taliban commanders  and an increase in drone attacks.

But several authorities on the eight-year Afghanistan war say no one should expect to see bin Laden in handcuffs anytime soon.

“No, I don’t think we’re getting any closer,” says Stephen Tanner, author of “Afghanistan: A Military History from Alexander the Great to the War against the Taliban."

Tanner says the ISI, Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence Agency, knows where bin Laden is hiding, but is not ready to say.

“We got to make a deal with Pakistan because I’m convinced that he’s [bin Laden] protected by the ISI,” Tanner says.

Tanner says that rogue elements within the ISI - if not the Pakistani government - may be using bin Laden as a “trump card” to exert leverage over the United States. Tanner says that Pakistani leaders are concerned that the U.S. will draw closer to India, Pakistan’s chief rival.

Flashing the bin Laden trump card will insure that the U.S. will continue to send aid to Pakistan because it considers it a bulwark against radical Islam, Tanner says. Without the bin Laden trump card, though, Pakistan would be in danger of being abandoned by the U.S., Tanner says.

“I just think it’s impossible after all this time to not know where he is. The ISI knows what’s going on in its own country,” Tanner says. “We’re talking about a 6-foot-4-inch Arab with a coterie of bodyguards.”

Even if the U.S. draws a bead on bin Laden, he won’t be captured alive, says Thomas Mockatis, author of, “Osama bin Laden: A Biography.”

Mockatis says bin Laden has bodyguards who are tasked with shooting him if his capture seems imminent.

“Killing bin Laden would not be a good thing,” Mockatis says. “He’s already a hero. Killing bin Laden would just create one more martyr.”

Many in the Arab world wouldn’t even believe reports that bin Laden had been killed, Mockatis says. They would dismiss the news as CIA propaganda and any photographs of bin Laden’s body as fabrications.

Killing bin Laden is important, but what’s more vital is the ongoing U.S. campaign to “constrict” al Qaeda’s operation, Mockatis says. The U.S. has become more successful at taking away al Qaeda’s safe havens, their ability to move agents and finance operations around the globe.

“It’s a grinding down process, the way you deal with organized crime,” Mockatis says. “You constantly keep the pressure on.”

That pressure may have led to several purported bin Laden sightings, says Ivan Kenneally, an assistant professor at Rochester Institute of Technology in New York who teaches courses on American foreign policy and war and the state.

Some of those alleged sightings have placed bin Laden in Chitral, Pakistan, the northwest region of the country. One bin Laden tip from last fall was credible enough that the U.S. military and Pakistani special forces cordoned off  an area and kept it under 24-hour surveillance by drones, Kenneally says.

“There has been more general information that bin Laden is moving about North Waziristan, complicating his detection by constantly moving back and forth over the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan,” Kenneally says.

Finding bin Laden might not come down to super-sleuthing or aggressive military action, says William Martel, associate professor of international security studies at Tufts University’s Fletcher School in Massachusetts.

“You need a healthy dose of luck to actually produce the capture of someone like that who doesn’t want to be captured,” says Martel, also author of “Victory in War: Foundations of Modern Military Policy.”

Martel, like others interviewed for this blog post, says that bin Laden is probably still alive.

It may actually be better if bin Laden isn’t captured, Martel says. The debate over handling bin Laden in captivity would be explosive.

“Do we read him his rights; do we run him through a military tribunal or civilian courts?” Martel says. “Capturing him would pose more problems than not.”