The Chicago Tribune has an interesting piece explaining why Public Enemy #1 hasn’t been caught:

Whether he is holed up in a mountain cave or enjoying the hospitality of a local tribesman, Osama bin Laden has little reason to fear the same fate as Saddam Hussein any time soon, according to Afghan officials involved in the hunt for Al Qaeda’s leader.

More than two years and $20 billion after U.S. forces set out to find the mastermind of the Sept. 11 hijacking attacks, bin Laden remains as elusive as ever, officials said.

“If they catch him, it will be by accident,” said Gen. Hilaluddin Hilal, deputy interior minister in charge of security in Afghanistan.

U.S. officials promised Monday that Hussein’s capture would re-energize the hunt for bin Laden and his Al Qaeda associates and allies.

“Saddam is no longer a problem now, so bin Laden is the focus,” U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad said. The capture of Hussein “shows that with determination and good work it can happen,” he added.

But there is no reason to believe U.S. forces are any closer to finding the Saudi exile than they were when he gave them the slip in the mountains of Tora Bora in 2001.

Since then, the rumor mill has put him in Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Kashmirand even China. He also has been reported to be dead, from kidney disease or injuries received in the intensive U.S. bombardment of Tora Bora.

Afghan and U.S. officials said they believe he most likely is roaming the frontier straddling the Afghan-Pakistani border, home to the fiercely independent-minded Pashtun tribe.

The area stretches 1,500 miles from the bleak deserts of Baluchistan in the south to the peaks of the Hindu Kush in the north. The hunt is complicated by the forbidding nature of the terrain, and also by the complex history of the tribal region, which was divided by the British but has never been brought under the authority of any sovereign government.

Far less vulnerable

Whereas Hussein and his coterie always were vulnerable to betrayal by their fellow Iraqis, bin Laden remains protected by Pashtun customs as well as Islamic loyalties on both sides of the border.

The offer of a $25 million reward, an unimaginable fortune in this impoverished region, means nothing against the rigid code of tribal honor that requires tribesmen to offer hospitality to any stranger in need, said Mohammed Omar Babrakzai, a Pashtun who is Afghanistan’s deputy minister for border and tribal affairs.

No Pashtun could afford to betray a guest, for he would become an outcast from his tribe and family forever, he said

“They have to obey their customs, and if they were offered hundreds of millions of dollars, no Pashtun would hand over even an enemy,” Babrakzai said.

Update (0904): Stephen Green offers yet another reason.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. John Lemon says:

    Did anybody ever think that if bin Laden was caught sodomizing Saddam in his hideout hole, the Supreme Court would not allow us to capture either?

    Just an observation.