Editor's note: Peter Bergen, CNN's national security analyst, is a fellow at the New America Foundation, a Washington-based think tank that promotes innovative thought from across the ideological spectrum, and at New York University's Center on Law and Security. He's the author of "The Osama bin Laden I Know: An Oral History of al Qaeda's Leader."
Eight years after September 11, the "war on terror" has gone the way of the dodo. And President Obama talks instead about a war against al Qaeda and its allies.
What, then, of al Qaeda's enigmatic leader, Osama bin Laden, who has vanished like a wisp of smoke? And does he even matter now?
The U.S. government hadn't had a solid lead on al Qaeda's leader since the battle of Tora Bora in winter 2001. Although there are informed hypotheses that today he is in Pakistan's North West Frontier Province on the Afghan border, perhaps in one of the more northerly areas such as Bajaur, these are essentially guesses, not "actionable" intelligence.
A longtime American counterterrorism analyst explained to me, "There is very limited collection on him personally."
That's intelligence community shorthand for the fact that the usual avenues of "collection" on a target such as bin Laden are yielding little or no information about him. Those avenues typically include signal intercepts of phone calls and e-mails, as well as human intelligence from spies.
Given the hundreds of billions of dollars that the "war on terror" has consumed, the failure to capture or kill al Qaeda's leader is one of its signal failures.
Does it even matter whether bin Laden is found? Yes, it does.
First, there is the matter of justice for the almost 3,000 people who died in the September 11 attacks and for the thousands of other victims of al Qaeda's attacks around the world.
Second, every day that bin Laden remains at liberty is a propaganda victory for al Qaeda.
Third, although bin Laden and his deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri aren't managing al Qaeda's operations on a daily basis they guide the overall direction of the jihadist movement around the world, even while they are in hiding.
Those messages from al Qaeda's leaders have reached untold millions worldwide via television, the Internet and newspapers. The tapes have not only instructed al Qaeda's followers to continue to kill Westerners and Jews, but some also carried specific instructions that militant cells then acted on.
In March 2008, for instance, the al Qaeda leader denounced the publication of cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed in a Danish newspaper as a "catastrophe" for which punishment would soon be meted out. Three months later, an al Qaeda suicide attacker bombed the Danish Embassy in Islamabad, killing six. Read more here ...