Hunting Bin Laden?

HAVE THE BRAKES been put on the hunt for Osama bin Laden? Just back from the CENTCOM region, that is my hunch.

The effort to find bin Laden was one of the many questions I had about the war on terror as I joined a Pentagon-sponsored military immersion program called the Joint Civilian Orientation Conference.

This was to be a unique opportunity for 45 civilians to learn about CENTCOM, a geographical territory encompassing the most dangerous spots in the world, and I was looking forward to being a mental sponge on a subject that has preoccupied me since 9/11.

I have done thousands of hours of talk radio, and written numerous columns and two books about the war on terror, but never before had I seen it being waged.

The weeklong activities did not disappoint. The daily agenda was packed and the presenters were stellar. We heard from the defense secretary, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the vice admiral of CENTCOM and other high-ranking war commanders.

Our days began at 5 or 6 a.m. and didn't end until 10 or 11 p.m. We traveled 15,000 miles and spent time in four nations. We ate meals with soldiers, fired the best of the Army weaponry in the desert, toured classified Air Force surveillance aircraft and were educated about the latest in efforts to counteract the dreaded IEDs (improvised explosive devices).

I came home with the utmost of respect for men and women throughout the ranks of all five branches of the service who are committed to eradicating the forces of radical Islam.

There was only one area of disappointment. I refer to the hunt for bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri.

I began to think of it as the Lord Voldemort of the trip - which Harry Potter fans will recognize as the individual whose name shall not be uttered. The search for bin Laden and al-Zawahiri was not part of the agenda, and when I did ask questions looking for a status report, there was no information forthcoming except a generic assertion that, indeed, the hunt continues.

For example, when we were briefed at Andrews Air Force Base by Vice Admiral Nichols, the No. 2 to Army Gen. John Abizaid - I asked him whether the hunt for bin Laden was, at this stage, completely dependent upon Pakistani President Pervez Musharaf. He told me we respect national sovereignty, and described the search as "difficult and nuanced."

I took that as a confirmation of my concern about outsourcing.

When, in Bahrain, I put the same question to Marine Brig. Gen. Anthony Jackson, he told me that the search was the equivalent of finding one man in the Rockies, an analogy that I heard repeatedly from men I met overseas. He also said that "no one is giving up" and that my question was better put to the guys in special ops.

So when we got to the special ops headquarters, in Qatar, I raised the matter yet again, this time with Col. Patrick Pihana, the chief of staff to the Combined Forces Special Operations Component Command. He offered nothing substantive on the issue. There were other places we visited that I am not at liberty to discuss where one would expect it to be a focal point, but it wasn't in our briefings.

I want to be clear here: Nowhere did anyone ever tell me the search for bin Laden is over. But I am worried that the days of aggressively hunting him have ended. I say that based on the lack of response to my repeated questions in the context of other sensitive briefings, the fact that the CIA reportedly closed its bin Laden desk, called the Alec Station, and the agreement reached between Musharaf and tribal leaders in the Northwest part of his nation wherein he has agreed to give them continued free rein.

I might be wrong. The prospect certainly exists that the hunt continues and yours truly, a blowhard from Philadelphia, was deemed unworthy of any information. That would be fine with me - I am not one who believes Americans have a right to know secrets - but I would have hoped that along the way, someone would have said so. In light of a great deal of sensitive information that was shared with my group, and the total absence of anything about bin Laden, I don't think this is the case.

I may be right. To be sure, if we catch a break I am certain we will grab him and kill him, but maybe our Special Forces have repositioned their precious resources. And why might this be the case? Well, for starters, because our limited manpower is desperately needed in Iraq. Perhaps they're hiding in Pakistan and we are respecting their borders, even with the knowledge that Musharaf is limited in what he can or will do to find him.

Why would we respect Pakistani borders to the exclusion of finding and killing the most wanted man in the world? Because as weak as Musharaf might be in assisting us in finding bin Laden and al-Zawahiri, he is probably the best we can hope for in Pakistani leadership. Force his hand and we might lead to his undermining, and end up with a friend to radical Islam running the country.

There is another consideration. More than one individual with whom I spoke - and no one that I have named here - raised with me the question of what would happen to public support for the war against radical Islam if we were to find and kill bin Laden and al-Zawahiri? Would the American people then expect the military to pack up and go home, they wanted to know from me, who spends 17.5 hours a week answering phone calls from the public?

Again, I need to be blunt. No one ever told me that we are not hunting bin Laden because killing him would cause Americans to want to close up shop in Iraq and Afghanistan.

But this possible ramification is absolutely on the minds of our warriors as support for the war in Iraq dissipates.

I pray my gut is wrong. I hope that somewhere in Pakistan there are some bad-assed special ops guys wearing veils and burkas moving through villages, cutting deals, using sophisticated spy gear and doing whatever is necessary to bring the bastards' lives to the most heinous of endings. Bin Laden and al-Zawahiri are mass murderers responsible for 6,000 deaths - 3,000 on 9/11, and another 3,000 from events tied to that. The search must never end.