Why haven’t we captured Osama bin Laden?

Osama bin Laden (presumably) has issued another audio tape, actually a video with OBL voiceover, this time a sort of eulogy for Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the terrorist leader in Iraq who was killed last month:

CAIRO, Egypt – Osama bin Laden defended attacks by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi against civilians in Iraq, purportedly saying in a taped Web message Friday that the slain al-Qaida in Iraq leader was acting under orders to kill anyone who backs American forces.

Bin Laden paid tribute to al-Zarqawi in a 19-minute audio message posted on an Islamic militant Web site. The message has narration by a voice resembling bin Laden’s as a video shows an old photo of him in a split-screen next to images of al-Zarqawi taken from a previous video.

In the message, bin Laden demands President Bush hand over the body of al-Zarqawi to his family and effusively praises the Jordanian-born militant, often in rhyming couplets. His voice sounded breathy and fatigued at times.

“We will continue to fight you and your allies everywhere, in Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia and Sudan to run down your resources and kill your men until you return defeated to your nation,” he said, addressing Bush.

It was the fourth message purportedly put out this year by bin Laden. All have featured his voice in audiotapes. New video images of him have not appeared since October 2004.

Andrew Cochran of Counterterrorism Blog provides early sensible commentary.

This new tape will, no doubt, provoke another round of breastbeating here in the United States, asking the question that’s been asked since 2001: why haven’t we captured Osama bin Laden?

Why haven’t we captured Osama bin Laden?

We haven’t captured Osama bin Laden because doing so would have required an instantaneous invasion of Afghanistan in force.

Why would an instantaneous invasion of Afghanistan have been necessary?

An instantaneous invasion of Afghanistan in force would have been necessary because, had we built up an invasion force over a period of months as we did in Gulf War I, OBL would have been able to escape over the unsecured border with Pakistan, as eventually he did (it’s thought) in any event.

Why would an invasion in force have been necessary?

An invasion in force was necessary because only a massive force would have been able to secure the borders with Iran on the west, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan on the north, and Pakistan on the east and without securing those borders OBL would have been able to escape.

Why didn’t we invade in force anyway?

We didn’t invade in force for at least three reasons:

  1. Capturing Osama bin Laden was at least a secondary objective in the invasion.
  2. We didn’t have the ability to do so.
  3. An invasion in force would have been too imprudent.

Why didn’t we have the ability to do so?

We didn’t have the ability to mount an invasion of Afghanistan in force because the logistical requirements precluded it. Look at a map. The only avenues for mounting an invasion in force of Afghanistan are via Iran, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, or Pakistan. None of those were interested in providing us with a staging area.

Why would it have been imprudent to invade in force?

Both the British and Soviets had bad experience with invasions of Afghanistan. Invasions in force have a tendency to mobilize opposition against them. The method selected, by a combination of special forces, air, and enlisting the cooperation of local warlords opposed to the Taliban was extremely ingenious.

The scale of the operation didn’t mobilize opposition and enlisting the cooperation coopted an important source of potential opposition to our invasion.

The Pakistanis are supposed to be our friends. Why didn’t Pakistan close the border with Afghanistan?

I don’t believe the Pakistanis are our friends. I believe that it’s expedient for the current government in Pakistan to enlist our support.

But the central government’s control over the country is tenuous: its president, Pervez Musharraf, faces opposition from domestic opponents including some within his own military. There have been multiple very nearly successful attempts on his life.

The central government’s control over areas like Waziristan that adjoin the Afghan border and where OBL is presumed to be in refuge is essentially nonexistent. Had Musharraf moved to secure those areas he would in all probability have faced revolt.

Why didn’t we invade Pakistan, then?

Pakistan is a country of some 140 million people, some of the wildest roughest terrain in the world, and it has nuclear weapons and, apparently, a history of proliferation. Not only would an invasion have risked tactical use of nuclear weapons by the Pakistanis, it would have risked those weapons falling into the hands of people who wouldn’t have hesitated to use them against the American homeland.

So, what do we do?

Basically, we do what we’ve done: maintain the pressure in both Afghanistan and Pakistan as best we can to prevent the Taliban regaining control of the country and keep it difficult for OBL to communicate with the outside world.

I opposed the invasion of Afghanistan but IMO the campaign went remarkably well there—far better than I expected—and it went well because we did what we did. I have no reason to believe that doing more would have had a better outcome.

In the final analysis Osama bin Laden is just not that important. I don’t believe in the “great man” theory of history. I think that OBL was created by a series of events over the last hundred years or so and had he not existed someone else would have taken his place. We’re not just fighting Osama bin Laden and his criminal gang: we’re fighting forces of tribalism and primitivism armed with modern weapons, high tech communications, and modern organization ideas and that fight will persist as long as those those notions tribalism and primitivism have force and the resources to gain access to weapons, communications, and means of organization.

14 comments… add one
  • Glenmore Link

    “maintain the pressure in both Afghanistan and Pakistan as best we can ”

    Don’t forget India. Rice hasn’t. You can bet Pakistan noticed the recent softening of the US position on (peaceful) nuclear technology for India. I suspect Musharaf only agreed to tolerate US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 under threat of invading THROUGH Pakistan from India if he did not (or some variant on that theme). India is headed towards being the most populous nation on earth, its economy is modernizing (though not modern) and growing. It is a reasonably peaceful and democratic nation with a huge English-speaking population. It’s MINORITY population would make it the second-largest Islamic nation on earth, and the rest of the country knows that. India is a natural ally of the West, if we don’t screw it up. So when will the NY Times release some secrets that would embarass the Indian government and force them to cut back on cooperation with the West on the war on Islamofascism?

  • That’s a good point, Glenmore. The diplomatic initiatives towards India, while important in their own right, are a significant means of keeping the pressure up on Pakistan.

    I don’t think I’m quite as sanguine about the relationship between India and the United States as you are. India is just now emerging from an official policy of autoarky and is in many ways still a one-way autarky. They’re happy to trade with the U. S. so long as trade means money flowing from the U. S. to India. But when it means Indians buying U. S. crops or U. S.-made goods there are still substantial barriers.

  • One note about Pakistan :
    *I don’t intend this an “excuse” for the responsibility of the Pakistani ISI for essentially creating and bankrolling the Taliban.

    The elites (both military and civilian) in Pakistan have a very bitter experience with America in the late 20th century.

    Despite being Washington’s good ally during the Cold War (ex. being the conduit for the secret America-China breakthrough talks of the late 60’s/early 70’s and their work with the US to bring down the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 80’s), they were “dumped” when the Cold War ended.

    American aid was curtailed or frozen quietly. The Pakistanis have a deep sense of betrayal because of this, and thus is the paradox… having shown itself to be an unreliable ally, the US nevertheless will not achieve its objectives for ending the terrorist/insurgent threat in Afghanistan without complete Pakistani support, something it won’t get because the Pakistanis don’t trust the US.

    Indeed look at even more recent behavior: Musharraf asked (reasonably!) after Operation Enduring Freedom for economic concessions for the US, i.e. a larger textile quota in order to create more jobs for the massive unemployed masses in Pakistan, and America said no, just for the sake of the dwindling US textile business.

  • Dave, a peripheral point first: when you say you don’t agree with the “great man” theory of history, does that mean you don’t think particular leaders at particular node points — the Founding Brothers of this country; Washington’s early presidency, Lincoln, etc., don’t make a crucial difference? I cannot imagine England in WWII w/o Churchill and the lack of any one of that stature in WWI may have led to WWII.

    Then there is the bloody French revolution. Its lack of authentic leadership sealed France’s fate for generations…imho.

    Next: I wish you’d consider a post on America’s alliances of convenience. The ones we pick up and drop as things change. It reminds me of the often short-sighted management policies of big business in this country.

    We’d better not mess ths up with India. I distrust Foggy Bottom as much as I do the MSM…and Condi’s behavior has brought me back to reality. I’d hoped she could make a diff. there, but I’m not sure God could unseat that Immovable Object…

    I’m worried: I’m starting to agree with you more often. Oh dear…

  • rosignol Link

    In the final analysis Osama bin Laden is just not that important.

    Important or not, I still want his head on a pike.

  • OhBloodyHell Link

    I would not be surprised to find I am wrong, but I maintain that the SOB is wormfood somewhere under a 1/4 mile of rock in a cave collapsed by a guided missle.

    Look carefully at the way the tapes have changed since about 2004 — before that, they were typical Islam — all fire and bluster and threats: ‘We will bury you!’ — since that time, what few there have been are videos with no actual “timestamp” on them, anything that can be used to date them unquestionably to current events except the voice. In other words, they could be archival footage with an OBL soundalike and some Michael Moore wannabe as the scriptwriter. I suspect that the Feds know if I am right, but have reasons of their own for not exposing the fraud, if so. Two I.F. obvious possibilities:
    a) Don’t want to create a martyr.
    b) Waiting for politically opportune moment to release the fact.
    (I don’t care how much you like Bush, all experienced politicos are willing to do this sort of thing, and, personally, I don’t have a major problem with it considering the relentless dirty tricks his opponents use).

    This is idle speculation, but I do find the shift in tone since 2004 to be most odd, and it stinks like 7 day old haddock.

  • Some of the experts have referred to this as “losing ideological coherence” i.e. abandoning much of the Islamic jurisprudential tone of the old Bin Laden tapes.

  • Dr. Deano Link

    We need to consider that in terms of tactics and strategy, ‘getting’ Bin Laden is something to be done at the right time, in the right way, and the process of doing so should be timed and executed to get the most from the chase and the capture/kill.

    What I mean is, Bin Laden is AQ’s leader for better and for worse. If he dies, AQ gets a new leader who may well be less well known by our intelligence organizations and would create a new dynamic with AQ. That means much or all of our AQ intel would become useles the minute OBL died and new efforts to understand the new leader would have to be undertaken.

    Bin Laden is unable to operate as freely as he would like as a leader since he spends much of his time focused on evading the forces that are seeking him out. He is a man on the run and must dedicate a lot of time and energy to staying free. That is time and energy not dedicated to leading his organization. So, he is relatively well-known, and by keeping him on the run we minimize his effectiveness to at least some degree. That would be far more difficult with a new leader for quite some time.

    From a military perspective, a minimized leader that you understand is preferred to an unknown. Sure, we want to get OBL, but we want to do so when we can also strike a severe or fatal blow to the entire AQ organization as well to minimize the effectiveness of OBL’s replacement.

  • Sarah Link

    I can’t believe this I pray that Bin Laden will be bars where he belongs!!! Wake up People he did something really bad!! Let’s get this slim ball and put him where he belongs!!!

    COME ON YOU GUYS WE CAN DO THIS!!!!!!! He will pay for what he did.


  • Hanif mondal Link

    everyman is innocent until PROVEN guilty

  • Will Houston Link

    um, PROVEN & GUILTY.

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