Osama bin Laden has disappeared from the Afghan picture, the hounds have lost the scent and for the first time since September 11 the US propaganda effort threatens to run out of steam.
Bin Laden endowed the War on Terrorism with pin-sharp focus. In his absence, Afghanistan is again merely a gun-saturated morass of feuding tribesmen, a treacherous political tangle. The man is badly missed.
There is a whiff of desperation in the air. The US is preparing to use "thermobaric" bombs to suck the air out of Tora Bora's caves and tunnels, then to throw hundreds of ground troops in behind them to search for clues to where bin Laden has gone. Some of the 2000 US Marines in south Afghanistan are already interrogating al Qaeda fighters for information about their chief.
In Pakistan, American soldiers and CIA agents are helping the Pakistani military track down al Qaeda guerrillas.
One reason for the growing direct US involvement in the manhunt is simmering dissatisfaction with the performance of their Afghan and Pakistani allies.
The Afghans, it is said, are losing interest. And elements in Pakistan's military and intelligence services are believed to be sympathetic toward al Qaeda.
But the search for bin Laden must go on. American popular sentiment demands it, the desire for retribution for the atrocities of September 11 cries out for it, the ratings will plummet unless the goal is pursued vigorously and publicly.
"I don't know where [bin Laden] is," said General Richard Myers, chairman of America's joint chiefs of staff. "I'd rather not speculate if he is alive. If he has left Afghanistan, fine. In the end I am confident we will find him."
So where to look? Until last week, the Pentagon seemed confident bin Laden was holed up in a cave near Tora Bora.
This certainty has gone now that al Qaeda - or most of them - have been killed or flushed across the border. Despite the high-tech equipment at America's disposal, including spy satellites and unmanned reconnaissance planes, the quest for bin Laden remains a guessing game.
It is possible he is dead, killed by his own hand or buried under tons of debris in a cave: one reason why US commander General Tommy Franks is determined to explore the caves using US forces, a task that could take months.
But if bin Laden has slipped away, the clever money is on him having vanished into the tribal areas just the other side of those high mountains that line the border.
These tribal Pashtun communities are in the custom of treating this border with contempt, and he will be among people who strongly support the Taleban. The drawback: these are villages where word of new arrivals spreads like lightning.
However warm the welcome, it is unlikely that the $US25 million ($62 million) terrorist will be able to rest easy in the North West Frontier Province for long.
So he might head south to the pro-Taleban Pashtun refugee communities of Baluchistan, between the Pakistani city of Quetta and Kandahar. Here again his welcome is likely to be warm, but he is unlikely to keep his presence a secret.
Once these obvious havens have been exhausted, the guesswork becomes wilder. One theory holds that he may have crossed 200km of mountainous Pakistani territory to reach Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, and the shelter of one of the training camps used by militants fighting against India.
But there is none of the time-honored tribal protection available in Kashmir, and with tension between India and Pakistan close to boiling point his presence would become a serious embarrassment for Pakistan.
Another scenario sees him doing a flit through the deserts of Baluchistan to the Arabian Sea, where he could board a ship bound for the Philippines or Morocco or one of half a dozen other destinations.
But he might almost equally easily be imagined, without beard and hair, wearing colored contact lenses and modern clothes, waiting at tables in Soho.
©Copyright 2001, New Zealand Herald