Time to Give Up the Ghost on bin Laden

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Salah Malkawi / Getty

Osama bin Laden, in a video that aired on the eve of the second anniversary of the 9/11 attacks

This week the Obama Administration made an unusual admission: It doesn't have a clue as to where Osama bin Laden is. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said there hasn't been good intelligence on bin Laden for years. National Security Adviser James Jones said the best guess is that bin Laden may be moving back and forth across the Pak-Afghan, a rugged mountain range that has never been governed.

I spoke to an ex-CIA colleague who has been on the bin Laden hunt since 9/11. "He's dead, of course," he said. "No wonder there's no intelligence on him." But what about the audio- and videotapes? He said they easily could have been digitally mastered from old tapes and audio recordings. He quickly admitted that the CIA has no evidence that bin Laden died. It's only a hunch — and years of experience chasing fugitive terrorists.

The theory that bin Laden is dead doesn't get much currency in Washington because it veers off into the realm of conspiracies. And people who believe it are scared that the moment they air their view, bin Laden will reappear. Anyhow, it's a real possibility that bin Laden was killed at Tora Bora in late 2001 and is now buried under tons of rock, never to be found. Or that he died of ill health in the intervening years.

But let's accept for the sake of argument that bin Laden is alive and well. Other than the obvious — he's living in an ungovernable part of the world — what is known is that bin Laden maintains an extraordinarily exacting standard of security. It is beyond anything that we have ever seen. He has never been on a cell or satellite phone. He doesn't use the Internet. And there is little doubt that the people around him adhere to the same strict standards.

In the absence of intelligence, that's pretty much all we can say. And by this logic, bin Laden may not in fact be living in the mountains along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. For all we know, he could just as easily be in Pakistan's Baluchistan province, another piece of Pakistan outside the writ of Pakistan's government and NATO forces. Or he could be in Somalia or, who knows, some remote island off Indonesia.

The Administration's frankness is refreshing, but it suggests that we should really start considering the possibility that bin Laden will never be found. Sending 30,000 more American troops to Afghanistan is not going to put us any closer to finding bin Laden. If his security is as good as it appears to be, even a door-to-door search of every house in Pakistan's tribal regions would produce nothing.

Unless our luck changes, the best we should hope for from the Afghan surge — and hope is about all we can be certain of — is that we manage to drain the swamp and keep bin Laden holed up in the mountains or wherever he is. But the question is, assuming we never find him, how will we know when the Afghan swamp is drained?

Baer, a former Middle East CIA field officer, is TIME.com's intelligence columnist and the author of See No Evil and, most recently, The Devil We Know: Dealing with the New Iranian Superpower.