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Why the Hunt for Osama Bin Laden Has Failed

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Hear Part I of the Series

In the days following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, President Bush ordered that Osama bin Laden be captured or killed. But more than three-and-a-half years later, the hunt has reached a stalemate. Mary Louise Kelly concludes her story on the leader of the first CIA team to enter Afghanistan in search of bin Laden shortly after Sept. 11.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

The trail of Osama bin Laden is cold. That's an outcome few would have predicted in the fevered days following the September 11th terrorist attacks when President Bush declared he wanted bin Laden dead or alive. US military and intelligence teams poured into Afghanistan in hot pursuit. Yesterday we heard the story of Gary Schroen, leader of the first CIA team into Afghanistan. Today we ask him how bin Laden has managed to elude capture. Here's NPR's Mary Louise Kelly.

MARY LOUISE KELLY reporting:

Gary Schroen's orders in September 2001 were to find Osama bin Laden and kill him. Schroen believes US forces came close at Tora Bora in eastern Afghanistan. But the battle there was more than three years ago. Since then, Schroen believes bin Laden has never been in real danger. Schroen says today bin Laden is almost certainly in Pakistan, probably a couple hundred miles north of Waziristan, where many analysts have placed him.

Mr. GARY SCHROEN (Former CIA Agent): I personally, just because of my knowledge of Pakistan and the areas, believe that the best place for him to hide would have been north of Peshawar, in the Mohmand, Dir and Bajur tribal agencies.

KELLY: Schroen's knowledge draws on years living in the region, including tours as CIA station chief in Kabul and Islamabad. Today, he's 63, officially retired but still on contract to the agency, for which he travels frequently to Kabul.

Schroen has two basic theories for why bin Laden hasn't been caught. The first is that Pakistan doesn't want him to be.

Mr. SCHROEN: The US military has come up with fairly solid leads to potential high-value targets, and a lot of this has resulted in turning the information over to the Pakistani government, army and/or the intelligence service, and in just about every case that I can think of, they come up with, `It's a dry hole,' `No, there wasn't anybody there,' `Nothing happened.'

KELLY: Schroen's reasoning goes like this: If bin Laden is found on Pakistani soil, international pressure will compel Pakistan to help capture or kill him, and that could cause a huge backlash by extremists and al-Qaeda sympathizers against the government of President Pervaiz Musharraf.

Mr. SCHROEN: And it comes almost to the point of: Is it really worth it for Musharraf and the government to take the risk of helping us? Because, frankly, I think they see our goal as, `Let's get bin Laden and whack the al-Qaeda leadership, and then we'll be gone.'

KELLY: And Musharraf would be left facing a potential insurgency, perhaps even a coup d'etat.

Pakistani officials dispute this logic. Mohammad Sadiq is the number-two diplomat at Pakistan's Embassy in Washington. He says it's outrageous to suggest his government would give bin Laden a pass to avoid domestic upheaval.

Mr. MOHAMMAD SADIQ (Pakistani Diplomat): You know, you are talking about a person who has instructed his followers to kill our president, to kill our prime minister, to kill our Cabinet, and you think that, you know, we will be afraid of an upheaval in Pakistan? Definitely these are only allegations, and they are wrong.

KELLY: Sadiq also questions whether bin Laden really is in Pakistan, given that satellite intelligence has apparently turned up no trace.

If bin Laden does turn up in Pakistan, that raises the specter of US forces based in Afghanistan crossing into Pakistan to nab him. Pakistan has made clear it opposes such a move, and Gary Schroen believes the US would go in only if the intelligence on bin Laden were indisputable.

Mr. SCHROEN: It would almost take a picture, either by one of the Predator unmanned aircraft or somehow a satellite image or something that would actually show an individual that looked enough like bin Laden and it was in a timely manner that we thought, `Well, he'll still be there.' And to get that set of circumstances is almost impossible.

KELLY: In other words, as Schroen sees it, the search for bin Laden has turned into a stalemate, with US forces sitting on one side of the Afghan-Pakistan border, Pakistani forces on the other and neither seeing much benefit in upsetting the status quo.

If the search for bin Laden has arrived at a stalemate, Cofer Black, for one, suggests that's not the end of the world. Black was Gary Schroen's boss. He ran the CIA's counterterrorist center from '99 to 2002. He's now with the security company Blackwater USA. Black argues that catching bin Laden remains important for symbolic reasons, but he says there are more pressing concerns today for US national security.

Mr. COFER BLACK (Blackwater USA): The leader of al-Qaeda spends, you know, most of his time hiding. This guy has been, I think, significantly isolated as a real player. So what are we talking about here? To a certain extent, he has been neutralized in terms of his effectiveness.

KELLY: Even so, Cofer Black argues that since 9/11, the US has relentlessly gone after bin Laden and other senior al-Qaeda leaders. Gary Schroen respectfully disagrees. Schroen's second theory for why bin Laden hasn't been caught is that the US has, in fact, dropped the ball. Schroen says that by 2002, as planning for the Iraq War ramped up, top military Special Forces units were pulled out of Afghanistan. Same for the CIA. Schroen says the Iraq effort consumed hundreds of operations officers, leaving CIA managers struggling to staff Afghanistan.

Mr. SCHROEN: Herat, for instance, was opened and closed and opened and closed. The same in Mazar-e Sharif. The number of guys, CIA personnel, out in these little remote camps and bases were reduced in number, again because of demand to staff up the Iraq effort. And so it really did cost us, I think, a lot in momentum, a loss of momentum that exists still today.

KELLY: Bush administration officials have consistently denied that resources for the bin Laden hunt were sacrificed for Iraq. But if the US seems less determined to catch him, there's a reason. Cofer Black, the former CIA counterterrorist chief, says Americans need to remember bin Laden is, quote, "just one guy."

Mr. BLACK: I think the appropriate amount of resources are being devoted. I think it would be a tragic error for the amateurs to say, `Let's put everything we have to track down this one single man,' and neglect the other areas that are more likely to threaten and kill Americans and our friends overseas.

KELLY: This question of how aggressively the US should continue to pursue bin Laden is a key one now in the war on terror. Some intelligence insiders, including Gary Schroen, believe bin Laden is still sufficiently dangerous to merit a full-scale effort. Others argue his influence has by now dimmed, overtaken by a new generation of Islamic extremists. Jim Pavitt, who ran the CIA's clandestine service for five years until last August, finds himself mainly in the latter camp. Still, he warns bin Laden and his deputies' greatest virtue may be patience.

Mr. JAMES PAVITT (CIA): The fact that there has not been a catastrophic attack against US interests should do nothing in terms of assuaging our concern about this--nothing. They're there, they're planning, they're waiting. And when they have the right opportunity, the right resources, people and others in place, I believe they're going to attack us again.

KELLY: Gary Schroen shares that concern. The man the CIA assigned to find and kill bin Laden days after 9/11 fears the failed efforts so far have only enhanced bin Laden's reputation among his followers, and he believes the US should spare no effort today in the search for Osama bin Laden.

Mary Louise Kelly, NPR News, Washington.

MONTAGNE: This is NPR News.

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