The Political Perils of Victory Without bin Laden

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Pakistani border troops search vehicles coming into Pakistan from Afghanistan

Seeing Osama bin Laden chuckling ghoulishly over his "achievement" on September 11 reminded most Americans why they want him dead. And many had been expecting the battle of Tora Bora to produce his body. But al-Qaeda's last Afghan redoubt has fallen and bin Laden's whereabouts, in Pentagon parlance, are "anyone's guess." Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz found himself playing damage control Tuesday, reminding the nation that the war on terrorism is about far more than one man.

But America has — for better or worse — put a face on the evil of the September 11 attacks, and that face belongs to Osama bin Laden. Personalizing the battle has been the work not only of a media culture that can't report a war without resorting to standard Hollywood diabolical bad-guy tropes, but also of the administration itself: Despite all caveats to the contrary offered every step of the way, much of what Washington has done since September 11 has made getting bin Laden a major objective of the exercise — from leaflets dropped all over Afghanistan offering a $25 million reward for his capture and Pentagon updates over his likely whereabouts to the White House releasing last week's tape to convince the Arab world of his guilt on what many anticipated was the eve of his demise at Tora Bora.

Demonizing a foe and then failing to destroy him can be bad for a nation's morale — witness Saddam Hussein still cropping up on Washington's to-do list a decade after the U.S. marshalled a half million allied troops to confront him in Kuwait. Sure, bin Laden may yet turn up among the corpses or the stragglers of Tora Bora. But if he doesn't, he will have scored a significant short-term propaganda victory and created some major political headaches for Washington.

Bin Laden's escape plan

The Saudi terrorist leader's whereabouts may depend in large part on his original intentions. If he had chosen Tora Bora as the site of his "martyrdom," he may be found within days or already be dead. But if his game plan had always been to live to fight another day, he's unlikely to have waited around for the stronghold's inevitable collapse before making his getaway. It's always possible that he miscalculated the speed of his enemies' advances, of course. But he's the head of an organization whose operations tend to be meticulously planned, years in advance — if bin Laden had always planned to slip away once Afghanistan became too dangerous for him, he's more likely to have implemented a carefully-laid escape plan with plenty of decoys and red herrings, than to be improvising a haphazard retreat. And he's unlikely to go to ground in the pro-Taliban villages of western Pakistan, where the hunt for Tora Bora survivors would be at its most intense. If he's looking to lay low and wait out the storm, he's likely to have sought refuge in nooks where the U.S. is least likely to look.

Victory without bin Laden?

Unless bin Laden turns up in the next couple of days in the Tora Bora area, the likelihood is that the U.S. military campaign in Afghanistan will begin winding down without having delivered a number of the most prized leaders in the enemy camp. Pursuit of the world's most-wanted terrorists will become, once more, an intelligence-and-police operation. President Bush insists they'll be brought to justice, but many Americans had expected to see the moment come before Christmas. Despite America's dramatic successes — destroying the Taliban regime and al-Qaeda's infrastructure, killing hundreds if not thousands of its fighters and closing down Afghanistan as a terrorist refuge — Phase 1 of the Bush administration's war on terrorism may be taken as only a partial victory as long as bin Laden remains at large. This even though the Pentagon had warned from the beginning that conventional military force could destroy the Taliban regime but could not guarantee the elimination of individual terrorists or the uprooting of their network.

America's disappointment, of course, is bin Laden's delight. If he manages to survive the massive U.S. military effort in Afghanistan, he wins an important propaganda victory no matter how much of his movement been destroyed — precisely because of the extent to which America's war against him has become personalized. Bin Laden was a relative nobody in the Islamic world in the summer of 1998 when his men bombed two U.S. embassies in East Africa. And it wasn't necessarily the attacks themselves that made him the international center of gravity for Islamist anti-American rage — it was the U.S. response, which was to name Osama bin Laden as the most dangerous man in the world and fire off a slew of cruise missiles onto two continents in a vain, almost panicky attempt to eliminate him and destroy his assets. Radical Islamists everywhere who might once have raised a skeptical eyebrow at the lofty pretensions of bin Laden's rhetorical tilting at the U.S. suddenly treated him with new respect. It was as if the scale of the Clinton administration's tactically pointless retaliation had confirmed bin Laden's claims to be leading a global jihad against the Americans.

Bin Laden is all too aware of the power of perception, even among his natural ideological bedfellows. On last week's video he emphasizes that even in his core constituency, people back the stronger horse. The ability of al-Qaeda to survive may now depend substantially on perceptions among the Islamists of the relative strengths of bin Laden and his enemies. The Afghan campaign has not diminished the anti-American anger on which bin Laden built his movement — Arab media is dominated not by stories of al-Qaeda's defeat, but by reports of Palestinians under attack by Israel and of U.S. support for Ariel Sharon; moderate Arab regimes are pleading with Washington to abandon talk of a new war with Iraq, and so on. But whether the militants in the various Islamist networks are going to continue to risk their necks for bin Laden will depend not simply on their anger at America, but on whether the Saudi terrorist leader looks like a winning horse. And if he manages to survive the Afghan firestorm, his propaganda machine will be working overtime to restate his claim to the title of America's nemesis. Which is why, for the U.S., getting bin Laden is not simply personal; it has become a political imperative.