After weeks of military victories, expectations have been growing in the United States that American forces could soon wrap up their effort in Afghanistan and move triumphantly to other fronts. But the need to keep hunting Bin Laden would mean a greater continuing commitment in the Afghan region and would make it more difficult for the administration to turn its attention to any new phase in the anti-terrorism effort, experts say.
Despite strong domestic support for the war, a failure to find Bin Laden would be a political setback for the administration because of the way the campaign has become personalized, they say.
Especially since the release last week of a videotape apparently confirming Bin Laden's involvement in the Sept. 11 attacks, Americans have become convinced that the Saudi militant is responsible for what happened. And they believe that, beyond overthrowing the Taliban and routing the Al Qaeda terrorist network, the United States must capture the mastermind if justice is to be done.
This view showed up in a Newsweek poll over the weekend in which 62% of respondents said that Bin Laden and former Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar would have to be captured for the war to be counted a success.
"This war has become so personalized, especially with the release of the tape," said Ivan Eland, a defense analyst at the libertarian Cato Institute in Washington. "Trying to end it without getting Bin Laden won't sell. It's like capturing a bunch of gangsters and missing Al Capone."
Experts emphasize that Bin Laden and Omar could be captured at any moment--indeed, one or both might have already been killed by U.S. airstrikes or ground fighting. U.S. and Afghan forces and other allies have thousands of troops arrayed against the two, as well as a huge intelligence apparatus and a growing group of bounty hunters chasing a $25-million reward.
Yet in the last few days, it has come to appear that U.S. forces overestimated their chances of seizing Bin Laden at his mountain hide-out in eastern Afghanistan. After reporting that radio intercepts were showing him still in the region, Pentagon officials acknowledged Monday that his whereabouts were anybody's guess.
The Bush administration is partly responsible for the way the war has become based on personalities. Though officials have at times stressed the need to wipe out Al Qaeda in all 50-plus countries where it operates, they have also pointed again and again to the central role of Bin Laden.
In much the way that his father focused the Persian Gulf War on the misdeeds of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, President Bush has emphasized the crimes of Bin Laden, calling him an "evildoer" whom he wanted "dead or alive." Though Bush's words were part of a conventional tactic for building political support for the war, they also raised the stakes for the administration in the event the manhunt flops.
Gary Schmitt, executive director of Project for the New American Century, a conservative advocacy group, said he did not believe that the inability thus far to capture Bin Laden was a major setback for the war.
Yet if it continues, "it will become a distraction politically and make it more difficult to say that phase one is over with and we can move on with something else," he said.
U.S. officials have emphasized their desire to scale back American military involvement in Afghanistan as soon as the current mission is over. Though they intend to remain engaged in supporting the new government and helping ensure that humanitarian relief continues, they have made clear that they do not want U.S. forces on the ground as peacekeepers.
But the need to continue the pursuit of Bin Laden may make it harder to reduce the U.S. military presence.
The anti-Taliban campaign in Afghanistan has probably gone a long way toward disrupting Bin Laden's ability to plan new terrorist attacks, analysts and U.S. officials say. As long as he is on the run and trying to avoid using telephones, his ability to direct any such effort will be limited.
But a failure to capture Bin Laden could provide a rallying point for his supporters around the world. His ability to elude the American superpower could add to his legend among the disaffected in the Islamic world.
And if, as some believe, Bin Laden has slipped across the border into Pakistan, he would find many such supporters in that country's teeming cities and could perhaps eventually return to the business of terrorism.
"That's the obvious downside risk: that he can mount an effort to begin a new operation," said Gordon Adams, director of security policy studies at George Washington University and a former Clinton administration official.
Yet some experts contend that Bin Laden's likely desire to resume his terrorist attacks is what gives them confidence that he will one day be caught.
"Could he get away for one to three months? Sure," said Michael Vickers, a former Army Special Forces officer who is now with the nonpartisan Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments think tank in Washington. "But he's not like some bank robber who's going to retire out of sight. He's likely to pop off again publicly, and he'll be at risk again."