Why Bin Laden Is So Hard to Catch

In politics, where there are choices, actions are calculated to achieve objectives.

Osama bin Laden has had and continues to hold clear objectives. He wants to demonstrate that the United States is an imperialist, infidel power that occupies and corrupts Islamic lands, and therefore should be punished and driven out. His statements repeat ad nauseam that U.S. forces occupy Saudi Arabia, the holy land of Islam, and therefore U.S. military bases must be expelled. U.S. sanctions and military strikes on Iraq, he says, kill and degrade fellow Muslims, and must cease. Washington's backing of Israel perpetuates the occupation and oppression of Arab Palestine and must be punished by all true Islamic believers.

Now he sees U.S. military forces "occupying" Afghanistan, a land that gave him six years of sanctuary.

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His current objective in Afghanistan is consistent with previous aims. It is to punish and drive all U.S. military forces from Afghanistan. Therefore, his strategy is to keep the U.S. 10th Mountain Division, Special Forces and other military units in Afghanistan, keeping them visible, active and bossy. This will eventually rub Afghan people the wrong way, he undoubtedly believes. Afghans are people who historically have resisted and eventually fought against armed occupiers. As in Vietnam, Lebanon and Somalia, it is widely held that shedding the blood of Americans, while giving them no end in sight, will force them to cut and run. Even in Desert Storm, Washington decided to call off the war when faced with urban warfare and the inevitable high casualties if it carried on to oust Saddam Hussein.

How can bin Laden keep U.S. forces in Afghanistan?

Simple. He can go to ground, as he has, moving from safe haven to safe haven. He has avoided communications that risk interception. He has kept his retinue small and isolated. Already, his underlings have organized small guerrilla units for future attacks on "occupying foreign forces and their puppets." Leaflets offering money for killing and capturing Americans are being circulated. These actions will guarantee that U.S. forces will not leave. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld says killing or capturing the al-Qaida and Taliban leaders remains the primary condition for the withdrawal of U.S. soldiers from Afghanistan.

Bin Laden will, from time to time, let people know he is alive, but his lack of activity will make him very hard to apprehend. With the exception of the capture in Pakistan of Abu Zubaida, head of al-Qaida operations outside of Afghanistan, there have been slim pickings on nabbing major players in the terrorist network.

This situation presents General Tommy Franks, chief of Central Command, with two major problems. To rebuff the image of an occupying force, Franks has wisely ordered that no permanent military bases be established. Housing, logistics, and weapons and troop deployments are all temporary and integrated with Afghan allies.

The problem of ongoing military operations is far more intractable. Pursuing bin Laden, his al-Qaida network and Taliban leader Mohammed Omar and his lieutenants requires vigorous combat, such as the recent Operation Anaconda in the mountain caves around the Shah-e-Kot Valley. And this plays into bin Laden's hands.

In recognition of the situation, U.S. soldiers working in reconstruction and relief efforts have shed their uniforms in favor of native dress. In addition, Rumsfeld has firmly opposed adding U.S. forces to the British-led peacekeepers operating out of Kabul. The lowest profile possible, the Pentagon believes, is necessary for the long haul.

Nevertheless, getting bin Laden, Omar and the rest will be a long haul. And that means the United States will be fighting a guerrilla war just around the corner. Unlike the successful war against the Taliban regime, this new war will incur significant casualties. It will not be a quagmire, as it was with U.S. forces in Vietnam or the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s, but the war is far from over.

Nicholas Berry, co-author of "IR: The New World of International Relations," contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.