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Michael Smerconish Headshot

Are We Still Hunting for bin Laden? Do We Care?

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After my boys recently requested new targets for paintball in the backyard, I found myself online, ordering a 25-pack of Osama bin Laden likenesses for $19.97. They arrived last week, on the same day as reports of an al-Qaeda resurgence in Pakistani training camps. Seems bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, are still alive, and apparently not the irrelevancy we had hoped, six years removed from 9/11.

As I stood opening the cylinder containing the terrorist's image, one of my sons asked what had become of the mastermind of the plot that killed 3,000. I found myself parroting the usual lines about the difficulty of finding one man amid rugged terrain. But the more my son prodded, the angrier I became.

Because I no longer believe we are hunting bin Laden. Worse, no one seems to care. What happened to the days when a suburban soccer mom would have yearned to strangle bin Laden or Zawahiri with her bare hands?

We've been told bin Laden fled from the battle in the Tora Bora area of Afghanistan into Pakistan. We know that last September, Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf reached an accord with tribal leaders that gave them continued free rein. Since July, we've known that late in 2005 the CIA disbanded Alec Station, the secret FBI/CIA unit dedicated to finding bin Laden. Sounds discouraging? There's more.

In October, I was one of 45 civilians invited to the Joint Civilian Orientation Conference, an incredible, one-week military-immersion program sponsored by then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. Our focus was the Cent-Com region, comprising 27 countries, including Iraq and Afghanistan.

We traveled 15,000 miles in one week and visited Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar and Djibouti. We drove a 10-kilometer obstacle course for humvees on the Kuwait/Iraq border, boarded (by helicopter) the USS Iwo Jima in the Persian Gulf, and took turns firing advanced weaponry in 120-degree sands. We received military briefings from leaders that included Rumsfeld, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the vice admiral of Cent-Com.

Extraordinary in their detail, the briefings were notable for what was missing - any mention of bin Laden. I later described him as the Lord Voldemort of the trip - He Who Shall Not Be Named.

When I asked repeatedly about what we were doing to find him, I was always assured that the hunt continues. But I don't buy it.

Deep inside a command center in Doha, Qatar, I found myself in a hangarlike building, watching war in real time. To my left, on an array of giant screens, I watched our military air activity over Iraq, as well as ground images from unmanned predators. Fox News was also on. On my right, it was Afghanistan, plus a live feed of CNN.

Both maps showed a beehive of activity. Lots of aircraft, plenty of movement. I noted that the activity in Afghanistan was heavily concentrated on its border with Pakistan. But there, all the action stopped. Pakistan, including the north Waziristan region where bin Laden is presumed to be hiding, was devoid of any military presence, at least on the map.

I'd like to think that, unseen, were the movements of some Pat Tillman-type heroes combing the rugged terrain of Pakistan, paying off the locals, cutting deals, using sophisticated spy gear, and doing whatever is necessary to find and kill bin Laden and Zawahiri.

But I doubt it.

Instead, I suspect we are completely reliant on Musharraf, who is willing to do only as much as guarantees him the continued support of America, but not enough to undermine his tenuous hold over his nation's tribal leaders. During my trip, I questioned senior military leaders about my suspicion.

One was quick to use the word sovereignty in his reply before describing the search as "difficult and nuanced." Another told me the hunt was the equivalent of finding one man in the Rockies. Several asked me what would happen if they did find him, insinuating that support for the war in Iraq would further dissipate if that were to occur.

I'm not blaming our military. But if I am correct that bin Laden is in Pakistan and not the subject of an aggressive hunt, our political leadership is at fault for not freeing the hands of our soldiers to find him. And I fault the media for banging the Iraq drum, but leaving the bin Laden beat silent. Six years removed from 9/11, and with reports of an al-Qaeda resurgence, it's time to wonder what we've really accomplished and what we do now. Maybe I'm mistaken, but one thing is clear: Whatever we are doing isn't working.

I ran my concerns past Michael Scheuer, former head of Alec Station and author of the best-seller Imperial Hubris. He told me, "Ultimately, we have had neither the focus nor resources to find and capture or kill bin Laden et al., and so almost by default we have had to hope that our Pakistani proxies would come to our rescue. Common sense should have told us that this was never going to occur. Why? Bin laden and his men and the Taliban are heroes to the great majority of Pakistanis - they beat the Soviets and are now beating the Americans - and Pakistani political stability could not survive Musharraf killing the population's heroes."

Which only reinforces my concern that, at this rate, my kids have as much chance of bagging bin Laden in our backyard as Musharraf's men do in the mountains of Pakistan.