- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 19, 2001

A number of cave hide-outs in Afghanistan's Tora Bora region were not struck by U.S. bombers in the battle against al Qaeda fighters, and some military officials believe there is a reasonable chance Osama bin Laden will be found in one of them.
A senior U.S. intelligence official said there is credible evidence that bin Laden was in the area a few days ago. There are no credible reports the fugitive has moved to a new location in the three days since anti-Taliban fighters routed bin Laden's al Qaeda army and declared victory at Tora Bora.
"Military and intelligence agencies do not believe there is any indication he has departed Tora Bora," the official said.
What's more, no one from bin Laden's security detail of Arab fighters is believed to have been killed or captured. "This means they're still together," said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
If bin Laden had crossed the border into Pakistan or moved to another region of Afghanistan, "We believe we would have some indication by now that that was true. We don't," the official said.
At the Pentagon, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz issued a stern warning to any country that might entertain thoughts of harboring bin Laden. The Saudi exile has run his 12-year-old al Qaeda network from Sudan and then from Afghanistan since 1996.
"I just think any country in the world that would knowingly harbor bin Laden would be out of their minds," he said at a news conference. "And I think they've seen what happened to the Taliban, and I think that's probably a pretty good lesson to people not to do that."
The U.S. and opposition forces ousted the Afghan Taliban government last week and has paved the way for a multiethnic interim government to assume power Saturday.
The intelligence official said there is a significant number of caves not bombed by U.S. aircraft and not entered by the opposition. They are now being methodically searched by CIA officers, U.S. special-operations troops, including elite Delta Force commandos, and by British Special Air Service (SAS) warriors.
Marine Corps Gen. Peter Pace, Joint Chiefs of Staff vice chairman, explained to reporters yesterday the searchers' methods.
"This is very, very difficult," he said. "You have several valleys in the Tora Bora complex. In each of those valleys, you have several hundred caves. And you want to go through very methodically, one by one, and if it's been closed by bombs, determine whether or not you want to open it up to see what's in there. So it's going to be step by step, cave by cave."
The intelligence official said that, while the bombing of Tora Bora has slowed markedly as the ground cave search goes on, the amount of intelligence assets devoted to the area has not dwindled.
At any given time, spy satellites, unmanned air vehicles and manned aircraft are delivering Tora Bora video images to military commanders back in Tampa, Fla., home of the U.S. Central Command and Army Gen. Tommy Franks, the Afghanistan campaign's commander. B-52 bombers, Navy strike jets and Air Force AC-130 gunships remain aloft waiting for targets to emerge.
One key piece of evidence that leads the United States to believe bin Laden was, or remains, in the Tora Bora area is that his voice was overheard on a short-range radio giving orders to his troops a week ago.
Asked why administration officials have confidence bin Laden moved within Tora Bora's hundreds of caves, the official said, "He does have an entourage around him. If you have pretty good visibility on the entourage. ." The official declined to elaborate. There is a belief within the Bush administration, the source said, that "we'll be rewarded for our persistence."
In Brussels yesterday, where he was attending a NATO conference, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said the search for bin Laden and fugitive Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar is "tough, dirty, hard work."
"The task is still ahead of us, and it should not be considered that it will be accomplished in a short period of time."
Mr. Rumsfeld also expressed satisfaction with the cooperation from Pakistan, whose troops have tried to seal exit routes in a long, porous border with Afghanistan.
"There's no question but that there's a good deal of communication between [President Pervez Musharrafs] army forces along the border and our forces in Afghanistan," the defense secretary said. "He does not want [al Qaeda and Taliban] forces coming into his country, and therefore he is doing a good job."
Vice President Richard B. Cheney said yesterday that the United States cannot wrap up operations in Afghanistan until bin Laden is caught. The White House says bin Laden masterminded the September 11 attacks on America.
"He's got to be a prime target because he's the head of al Qaeda and because it's clear that he was a major factor in the attack on 9-11," Mr. Cheney said in an interview with The Washington Times. "So whether we get him tomorrow, or next month or two years from now, we'll keep going till we get him."
Bill Gertz contributed to this report.

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