These days, it is Pakistan, America's chief ally in the war on terror, that is most often asked to explain why Osama bin Laden has not been caught. We decided it was time for a visit. We traveled to the tribal territories where the Pakistani Army is looking for him. We spoke with the intelligence officer who knows the most about where Bin Laden might be hiding. And, we spoke to Pakistan's President Pervez Musharaff.
We asked President Musharaff who he thinks is more popular in Pakistan — the United States or Osama bin Laden?
"That's a very difficult question," Mr. Musharaff replied. "Maybe Osama bin Laden. In the man in the street, it may be Osama bin Laden."
That is Musharraf's dilemma in the war on terror. To satisfy his American allies, he risks his own survival by taking on bin Laden and al Qaeda. Musharraf concedes that bin Laden may be holed up somewhere in the tribal territories of Pakistan near the Afghan border. But finding him there, he told us, is not so easy.
"If you just take an aircraft and helicopter and fly over these tribal agencies, you will realize when anyone says why we aren't catching him," Musharraf says. "You will realize yourself, how can you catch a man there?"
Those hunting for bin Laden compare the challenge of finding one man along the border with trying to describe an elephant to someone who has never seen one. You must go see the elephant, they said. So we did.
Waziristan is part of the Federally Administered Tribal Territories, an area roughly the size of Vermont. This 10,000 square miles of peaks and valleys set against the Hindu Kush Mountains is dotted with caves, tunnels and walled compounds, any one of which could be hosting the world's most famous fugitive.
This is the area that Osama bin Laden and several hundred al Qaeda fighters escaped to after the battle of Tora Bora in January of 2002. With the assistance of extremists in Pakistan, they set up headquarters and training camps and operated freely for more than two years until the U.S. pressured Gen. Musharraf into mounting a military operation against them.
Tens of thousands of soldiers were sent in, paid for by the American government to crush al Qaeda, kill or capture what was described as a "high value target" and stop remnants of the Taliban from crossing into Afghanistan to attack American troops. The Pakistani Army was met with heavy resistance.
Only a handful of Western reporters have ever been allowed into the area, and only then under the strict supervision of the army, which took us to a remote mountain outpost.
The army says it has driven al Qaeda from its base camps, but the enemy is still here. Five soldiers were killed a few days before we arrived.
The commander in charge of antiterrorism operations along the border is Lt. Gen. Safdar Hussain. He describes his mission as "to root out terrorism." Is his mission accomplished? "Not yet, but I am over the hump," Safdar says.
The general showed us pictures of al Qaeda command centers with fax machines, telephones, financial records, even video equipment to make propaganda films. There was a factory where terrorists were given the latest training in bomb making, and photos and files of captured al Qaeda fighters who had traveled to the region from the Middle East, North Africa and the former Soviet Republics.
Most of them, the general said, are not religious zealots but soldiers of fortune looking for adventure and a monthly check of $600.
At last count, Safdar says he has lost 266 soldiers, and more than 600 more are wounded.
The terrain is not the only thing in Waziristan that's unfriendly. The local Pashtoon tribesmen are Pakistani in name only. They have their own language and customs, and are governed by their own tribal laws.
The caves and tunnels have been providing sanctuary to al Qaeda and the Taliban since the United States invaded Afghanistan. Many of the Taliban grew up here, and pictures of their greatest hero, Nek Mohammed, who was killed by a U.S. missile, are sold in the local markets.
The Pakistani Army is tolerated, but not welcomed. We were told it was too dangerous to take us into the surrounding villages, so the army brought the villagers to us.
The elders told us they had heard about a reward for Osama bin Laden, but they didn't seem to grasp the concept of $25 million, or trust the U.S. and Pakistan enough to believe they would ever be allowed to collect it.
They said they hadn't seen Osama — or any foreign fighters at all. Gen. Safdar says they are too afraid to tell us anything.
Dozens of tribal elders have already been murdered for collaborating with the army. As for bin Laden, the general in charge of capturing him believes he has become almost irrelevant, cut off from his command structure and no longer issuing orders.
"Is it all that important to find him?" asks Safdar. "Even if he's taken out tomorrow, his ideology is not going to come to an end. So, I don't think that he's that important that we should be overly concerned about his being dead or alive."
It is not important that bin Laden be captured, he says, because, "What's going to happen? Sentiments, they are going to get further aggravated, but their ideology will continue. It's not going to stop here."
He says that this is his personal view, and does not reflect widespread sentiment in the Pakistani military and intelligence establishment.
But Pakistani President Musharraf does not disagree: "These troops are not certainly on a trail of one man and that's all they are doing," he says. "They are fighting terrorism, wherever it is. If Osama happens to be there incidentally, he will be killed or captured."
Some in Washington see a lack of urgency in Musharraf's hunt for bin Laden, an unwillingness to crack down on homegrown extremists who continue to indoctrinate and recruit soldiers to fight abroad, and provide a base of support for al Qaeda and the Taliban.
We told the president that people in the United States are starting to question his commitment to finding bin Laden or cracking down on extremism. In fact, CIA Chief Porter Goss as much as said that he believed that Osama bin Laden was hiding in the tribal territories in Pakistan, and was being protected by the Pakistani government.
"I absolutely don't agree with that statement," Musharraf says.
Musharaff is stung by the criticism that he is not doing enough in the war on terror. Al Qaeda has called for his assassination, and has already launched two unsuccessful attempts on his life. At least three other plots have been foiled.
Most of the victories in the war on terror have in fact come here. Pakistan has killed or captured more al Qaeda terrorists than any other U.S. ally. And much of the credit goes to an unlikely source, the Pakistani Intelligence Service, or ISI, long suspected of harboring secret sympathies for the Taliban and protecting Osama bin Laden.
After months of negotiations, the ISI agreed to sit down with us and make its case. We were picked up by Pakistani intelligence agents and driven through the streets of Islamabad to a safe house on the edge of the city, where we would meet the head of counter terrorism for ISI. He holds the rank of brigadier and goes by the name Ali, but few people even in the Pakistani government know his true identity.
"Ali" told us that his agents have apprehended 594 members of al Qaeda.
They include top members of the al Qaeda leadership like Ramzi BinalShib, a roommate of Mohammed Atta and one of the planners of the World Trade Center attack; Ahmed Ghailani, who was under indictment in the United States for his alleged role in the African embassy bombings; and Khalid Sheik Mohamed, the mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks, who was captured at the home of a Pakistani military officer.
We asked if the ISI had gotten much information from the high level al Qaeda people that have captured. Ali said they had. "The mere fact that there hasn't been a replication of 9/11 speaks volumes of what we shared with the world," he said.
The information wasn't enough to stop the bombings in Madrid and London. But the capture of Neem Noor Khan, al Qaeda's code maker, may have prevented other attacks. His computer contained plans to blow up financial centers in the United States, planes and buildings at Heathrow Airport, plus contact information that led to the arrest of 13 al Qaeda operatives in Great Britain.
"We have been able to effectively break the communication network from top to bottom," Ali told us. "We do not allow these people to communicate with each other."
He says they've even infiltrated al Qaeda's courier network, where one directive might require 30 messengers and two months to deliver. But the big arrests and aggressive interrogations have failed to produce any meaningful information on the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden. Even high-level prisoners don't seem to know.
Ali believes bin Laden is holed up in a single location someplace along the border, being protected and assisted by a very small number of supporters in order to keep a low profile.
There are still many who believe that it is not to Musharraf's advantage to capture bin Laden, that with his capture Pakistan would lose its leverage with the United States and jeopardize billions of dollars in military and economic aid, including a vital shipment of F-16s to upgrade its Air Force.
President Musharraf acknowledges that he would much prefer that the United States capture bin Laden in Afghanistan than have Pakistani troops capture him here: "He's almost become a cult, I think," he says. "And it's a very sensitive issue in the religious extremists. We don't want to get involved in interrogations or investigations and trials here with these people."
If he captured bin Laden in Pakistan, would he go so far as to secretly move him across the border and turn him over to the Americans? The president does not answer the question directly. "One thing is very sure, let me assure you, that we are not going to hide him for a rainy day and then release him to take advantage."
Pressed on whether he might let the Americans take the credit for the capture, Musharraf again avoided a direct answer. "We'll have to analyze at that time," he said, adding with a laugh, "but we would like to take the money part." That $25 million reward, he noted, is "good money."