Is there war after bin Laden?

If the al-Qaida leader is killed or captured, experts fear, support for the rest of the U.S. war on terrorism could collapse.

Published October 26, 2001 11:51PM (EDT)

As the hunt for Osama bin Laden continues in the caves and plains of Afghanistan, with the clear objective being to kill or capture the terrorist suspected of masterminding the Sept. 11 attacks, the United States faces a perplexing Catch-22.

On the one hand, a majority of Americans say they won't consider the war on terrorism won until bin Laden is tracked down. Certainly, President George Bush doesn't want to repeat the mistake his father made with Saddam Hussein -- demonizing a Middle Eastern foe but then leaving him at large.

Yet if American Special Forces were able to snag bin Laden tomorrow, some diplomatic and military officials and observers fear the symbolic victory would signal the end of international support for the war on terrorism, particularly among the crucial Arab states. Specifically, these officials expect that backing for continued military action would likely dissipate if bin Laden were removed from the picture.

Without a solid Middle East contingent as part of the coalition, the so-called Bush Doctrine -- which calls for an extensive, multi-year campaign to root out international terrorists wherever they may hide -- might founder.

"Nobody's saying don't get bin Laden if you can," notes Andrew Koch, Washington bureau chief for Jane's Defense Weekly. "But if the United States gets him quickly, then the goal in terms of a longer war on terrorism comes under tremendous pressure. And the barrier of what is internationally permissible with regards to open military action would be lowered."

Most of the nervous Arab regimes allied with the U.S. hope bin Laden is captured and the Taliban topples, but remain wary about any military action beyond that. From their perspective, once the U.S. kills bin Laden, "support for a continued military response would be dead," says John Voll, professor of Islamic history at Georgetown University. (If bin Laden were captured instead, Arab support would remain "limited," says Voll.)

So what's more important? A moral victory at home with the capture of bin Laden, or a sustained campaign overseas that continues the chase? The conundrum springs in part from the American tendency to personalize wars around larger-than-life villains.

"The United States has a habit of building up opponents into 10-foot giants," says Koch, who suggests leaders would be better served by "ratcheting down the level of rhetoric."

But that's easier said than done. "I think the administration is trying to say 'al-Qaida, al-Qaida, al-Qaida,' but the public keeps saying, 'bin Laden, bin Laden, bin Laden,'" notes Judith Kipper, co-director of the Middle East Program at Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Indeed, as Americans vent their anger over the attacks, it's bin Laden's portrait that has shown up recently on specialty T-shirts, rolls of toilet paper and even targets at driving ranges for golfers to take aim at.

There have been some mixed messages coming out of the White House, however, where Bush has called bin Laden "the Evil One," talked about smoking him out of caves and declared him wanted "dead or alive."

"The administration talks al-Qaida, while the president tends to focus on the man," notes Kipper. "His father did the same thing with Saddam, and turned him into a hero" in much of the Middle East.

Those public proclamations about bin Laden only heighten the pressure to find him. The problem, say experts, is that, in a country the size of Texas, actually tracking down bin Laden, or any single individual, could prove to be a monumental task.

"It's easy to defeat an opponent militarily. It's difficult to find an individual," says Koch. In other words, the U.S. military is not well equipped to make individual arrests.

The United States discovered that in 1989, when it sent 24,000 troops into Panama to track down Gen. Manuel Noriega. Even in a relatively secure setting, it took American troops nearly a week to find him. And that was only after Noriega, having driven around Panama City for five days, negotiated his surrender to the Vatican from the parking lot of a Dairy Queen.

In 1993, a raid on lieutenants of Somalian warlord Mohammed Farah Aidid ended with more than a dozen American soldiers dead, a pair of helicopters shot down, a pilot taken hostage and one soldier's body paraded through the streets of Mogadishu.

Still, 81 percent of Americans consider capturing or killing bin Laden a "necessary" goal, according to a recent Time magazine poll. And 61 percent say a war that "achieves most of its goals in Afghanistan but does not capture or kill bin Laden" would not qualify as a victory.

According to most news accounts, however, bin Laden's whereabouts today remain a complete mystery, and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld conceded this week that it's possible bin Laden may never be found.

The flip side is that as long as bin Laden remains at large, the United States will have more success keeping its anti-terrorism coalition together. "There is support among allies in the region and throughout the Middle East for bringing to justice those who perpetrated the acts against the World Trade Center," notes Koch.

"There is no love lost for the Taliban in the region," adds Chris Toensing, editor of the Middle East Report. "In the Arab world, bin Laden and the Taliban are destabilizing elements, and Arab governments want to stomp that out."

But once bin Laden and/or the Taliban are out of the equation, the diplomatic hurdles facing the United States among the Arab nations become enormous. Because if, as has been suggested, America decides to strike other countries in the region suspected of supporting or harboring terrorists, such as Iraq, the coalition will collapse. "You will lose all the Muslim allies," says Voll.

For now, bin Laden remains at large, and eager Americans want him dead or alive. But as long as he lingers in the caves, bin Laden makes life for American diplomats much easier.

By Eric Boehlert

Eric Boehlert, a former senior writer for Salon, is the author of "Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush."

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