In a talk at the Atlantic Council this week, CIA director-general Michael Hayden said Osama bin Laden is alive. I'll take his word for it. But bin Laden's strange disappearance makes one wonder what exactly happened to him. The last relatively reliable bin Laden sighting was in late 2001. A video that he apparently appeared in last year shows him with a dyed beard. More than a few Pakistani intelligence operatives who knew bin Laden scoff at the idea he would ever dye his beard. They think the tape was manipulated from old footage, and that bin Laden is in fact dead. But then again, they would have an interest in making Americans believe bin Laden is dead, since it would relieve U.S. pressure to find him by any means necessary, including going into Pakistani territory.
And what about all the other audiotapes bin Laden has put out since 9/11? Experts will tell you that off-the-shelf digital-editing software could manipulate old bin Laden voice recordings to make it sound as if he were discussing current events. Finally, there's the mystery as to why bin Laden didn't pop up during the U.S. election. You would think a narcissistic mass murderer who believes he has a place in history would find it impossible to pass up an opportunity to give his opinion at such a momentous time, at least by dropping off a DVD at the al-Jazeera office in Islamabad. (Read "Barack Obama on Homeland Security.")
I posed these questions to half a dozen of my former CIA colleagues who have been on bin Laden's trail since 9/11. What surprised me was that none of them would say for certain whether he is alive or dead. Half of them assumed he is dead, while the other half assumed he is alive. I suppose a lot of their timidity had to do with the still open wounds regarding the CIA's missing an event like Saddam Hussein's destruction of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. It would be so much easier to miss the death of a single man.
The important point of Hayden's talk was that Muslims have turned against bin Laden, realizing that his campaign against the West has ended up killing more Muslims than it has Islam's enemies. Al-Qaeda may be picking up adherents in North Africa and Yemen, preparing its return, but it certainly is no longer in a position to destabilize Saudi Arabia or any other Arab country. And, although Hayden didn't say it, there is no good evidence that bin Laden is capable of mounting a large-scale attack. He failed to pull off an October surprise, as many in the FBI and CIA feared he would.
Despite all this, whether bin Laden is alive or dead is actually pretty irrelevant. President-elect Barack Obama has no real choice but to revitalize the search for him, if only for political considerations. If al-Qaeda were to attack in the U.S. in the first months of his term, Obama would end up explaining why he wasn't more vigilant for the rest of it.
But what if bin Laden really is dead, buried under a hundred tons of rock at Tora Bora, or so weakened that he might as well be dead? Indefinitely crashing around Afghanistan's and Pakistan's wild, mountainous tribal region on a ghost hunt cannot serve our interests. The longer we leave troops in Afghanistan, the worse the civil war there will become. One day Obama will need to give up the hunt declare bin Laden either dead or irrelevant. He has more important enemies to deal with, from Iran to Russia.
Baer, a former CIA field officer assigned to the Middle East, 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