How Hard Are We Looking?

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It was inevitable that Democratic challenger John Kerry would sling out the questions during the debate: Where in the world is Osama bin Laden, and why hasn't the U.S. captured him?

America's closest allies in the hunt seem unenthusiastic. Nearly three years after closing in on bin Laden and losing him in the Tora Bora mountains, Pakistani and Afghan intelligence officials claim that the trail is cold. The last credible sighting of the gaunt terrorist in chief was more than a year ago along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, according to a senior Pakistani intelligence official. "He is quiet," adds the Islamabad official. Says an Afghan official in Kabul who works closely with the U.S. search team: "There's nothing here to go after. Bin Laden's fallen off the radar."

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U.S. officials refuse to comment on bin Laden intelligence, but they have long believed he is in the mountainous, lawless Pakistani border region of Waziristan. Terrorism experts say that rather than risk satellite-phone communication that can be pinpointed by U.S. eavesdroppers, bin Laden relies on a string of runners to carry his notes or recordings from his redoubts. Those audiotapes and videotapes reach news agencies in the Pakistani border city of Peshawar or the capital, Islamabad, strengthening the U.S. view that he's in Pakistan. Ayman al-Zawahiri, bin Laden's second-in-command, also believed to be in the area, released such a tape last week, beseeching young Muslims to rally to his cause "if we are killed or captured."

But a seven-month-long Pakistani offensive designed to flush bin Laden from Waziristan has come up empty. The Pakistanis say bin Laden is hiding in Afghanistan, while the Afghans agree with the Americans that he's on the Pakistan side. Says Lieut. General David Barno, U.S. commander of coalition forces in Afghanistan: "They probably feel more protected by their foreign fighters in remote areas inside Pakistan."

The U.S. has shifted its search strategy. Out of an estimated 18,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, some 5,000 are scrambling through the impossible terrain in places where bin Laden might be hiding. That area is a saw-bladed mountain range 1,500 miles long. But most troops aren't just looking for him specifically. Instead, they are patrolling the border against incursions by Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters. Rather than trek through the vast mountainous region hoping for a chance encounter, the U.S. command is now engaged in a slow but probably more effective tactic of trying to win over Pashtun villagers by digging wells and giving away tractors and generators. The hope is that someday a villager might trust the Americans enough to reveal some useful intelligence about bin Laden or other enemies.

As a result, Pakistanis doubt that the U.S. military can produce an October surprise — a scenario in which bin Laden is grabbed and Bush reaps the electoral gains. And beyond politics, Pakistani officials say they're not convinced that bin Laden really matters anymore. Says a senior Pakistani intelligence official: "For years the Bush Administration insisted that O.B.L. was running a terrorism franchise. We told them that it was not like this, that while al-Qaeda has a global ideology — hatred of America — their operations are local."

That won't play in Washington. The Administration wants Pakistan to do more to track bin Laden down but is afraid of endangering what help it does get fighting terrorism. A senior U.S. official mocked the Pakistani offensive as "7,000 to 10,000 Pakistani troops courageously battling 200 al-Qaeda guys to a standstill." As for bin Laden, he is still the figurehead, the most potent symbol of Islamic terrorism. And he still tops America's most-wanted list.