Why the Bad Guys Get Away in Afghanistan

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Marines search for clues on Jan. 1 at an al-Qaeda hideout in Helmand province

It?s become a familiar pattern: Afghan elders were spared further agonizing over whether to hand over a 14-year-old boy accused of killing American Sergeant Nathan Roy Chapman last week when it emerged Monday that the boy had escaped. The previous week, Afghan militiamen had claimed to be closing in on fugitive Taliban leader Mullah Omar in Helmand province, but then the one-eyed cleric simply vanished. A month earlier at Tora Bora, local fighters claimed to have surrounded Osama bin Laden and some 2,000 of his henchmen in the cave complex, but by the time the last grotto fell, some 1,800 of those fighters — and bin Laden himself — were nowhere to be found.

The fact that man dubbed "the evil one" by President Bush remains at large is deeply frustrating to Washington, denying America a bit of closure over the September 11 attacks. And while Mullah Omar's capture may be of limited military and political significance, it remains an almost embarrassing failure given the priority it has been accorded. After all, the one-eyed "commander of the faithful" is no slick cosmopolitan terrorist trained in the dark arts of conspiracy. He's simply a deluded peasant mystic who, having lost the key pillars of his power — military support from Pakistan and al Qaeda, and financial support from Saudi Arabia — has simply headed for the hills in his Pashtun heartland. The fact of his continued freedom signals the limited enthusiasm of the warlords that have replaced the Taliban for hunting him down.

The good news

Of course, the fact that America's two most-wanted men in Afghanistan have thus far eluded capture does little to change the political and military facts of what has transpired there: U.S. military power has smashed a noxious regime that had defiantly harbored the headquarters and engine room of the largest transnational terror corporation in history. Al Qaeda has suffered significant losses and, more importantly, has lost the sanctuary that allowed it to reproduce and expand its terror networks. The battle to uproot and eliminate those networks may yet take years, but it will be waged primarily by the world's law enforcement and intelligence services. Al Qaeda no longer has de facto control over a whole country, and the world is a safer place for it.

Still, the ground war against the Taliban and al Qaeda has been waged primarily by Afghan forces happy to take advantage of American logistical and air support to vanquish their foes and stake their own claims for power. That alliance between the U.S. and its Afghan proxies has been, inevitably, one of convenience rather than of principle. The shared goal was breaking the Taliban's grip on power and putting to flight the al Qaeda volunteers who had helped keep it in place — while the Afghan warlords have expressed commitment to help America snare its quarry in order to stay on the right side of the superpower that facilitated their victory, such verbal commitment has meant relatively little on the ground. Even the new prime minister, Hamid Karzai, appeared ready six weeks ago to simply let Mullah Omar fade into obscurity, before the Americans twisted his arm into promising to arrest the fugitive Taliban leader.

Meet the new warlord

Victory over the Taliban has been more in the nature of a realignment than a rout. Many of the local commanders on whose support it had depended simply switched sides or negotiated sweet surrender deals once the writing was on the wall — for the most part their men kept their weapons, and once the American bombers had tipped the tactical balance, towns changed hands in traditional warlord horse-trading rituals rather than in pitched battles. Even though they no longer control any significant territory, the Taliban's thousands of fighters may remain an asset prized by various warlords in their continuing turf battles for control over southern Afghanistan. And such calculations may be hindering the hunt for Mullah Omar.

The unfinished business of the Afghan campaign has left the U.S. in an uncomfortable position. Washington is being forced to commit more of its own troops to ground missions in pursuit of both fugitive leaders and against pockets of Taliban and al Qaeda fighters, which substantially increases the risk of American combat casualties. But casualties have been so few that there's no danger of an erosion of public support for the effort. And the U.S. military has moved nimbly to shift public expectations away from the idea that American forces are hunting fugitives — the mission is being firmly framed in terms of eliminating pockets of resistance and preventing al Qaeda regrouping.

The new government in Kabul is likely find itself under mounting pressure from its own constituents to restrain U.S. air strikes — Taliban and al Qaeda holdouts will have almost certainly sought shelter amid the civilian population precisely to raise the political costs of continuing to attack them from the air. But Afghanistan's new rulers won't stand in the way of the nation that has facilitated every step of their victory over the Taliban, even if that means absorbing the pain of continued air strikes. Karzai has emphasized that the U.S. is welcome to wage war on his territory until it has eradicated terrorists. Still, it is precisely in this moment of victory over the Taliban that the differences between the priorities of the U.S. and of its Afghan proxies have become clear.