- The Washington Times - Friday, December 21, 2001

U.S. special-operations troops in the Tora Bora area of Afghanistan have been forced to let some al Qaeda fighters escape to Pakistan because of strict rules of engagement.
A senior military official said the covert warriors must seek approval from U.S. Central Command before firing on people they identify as al Qaeda fighters trying to flee Afghanistan. The Americans are free to fire if they feel threatened or when raiding enemy compounds.
In communicating on secure radios through the chain of command, the commandos must "tell how many people there are, which way they are moving and why they think they are al Qaeda," said the source, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
This official estimated that scores of al Qaeda tracked by U.S. troops have made it safely to Pakistan the past week because approval to fire was not given promptly or not given at all. The al Qaeda ragtag troops are waiting for the cover of darkness, then leaving their caves to make the dangerous journey across the border.
The military official said the tight rules of engagement (ROE) are part of an overall policy of Army Gen. Tommy Franks, the campaign's commander, to keep civilian, or collateral, casualties as low as possible. He does not want a group of civilians mistaken for al Qaeda troops and mistakenly killed. Gen. Franks heads the Central Command at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Fla.
The military official said, "people moving at night, that's not the Afghan people. They're either al Qaeda or drug runners. So kill them."
"You wonder how a lot of them have sneaked out of Afghanistan? This is how."
Cmdr. Ernest Duplessis, a Central Command spokesman, said the command could not comment on ROE. "We're not able to go into specifics," he said. "Obviously, you are able to protect yourself."
U.S. commandos have been operating for weeks in the mountainous Tora Bora area, traveling mostly at night as they hunt for escaping al Qaeda fighters and their leader, Osama bin Laden.
A senior administration official said the ROE are "a blessing and a curse of instant communications and satellite communications. The guys can micromanage from Tampa things that are happening on the ground in Afghanistan."
"Overall, however, the special-operations community has been pleased with the freedom Gen. Franks has given commandos to plan and execute missions," administration officials say.
Anti-Taliban forces routed most of the estimated 1,000 terrorist army from cave hide-outs, and then declared victory on Sunday, leaving the dangerous cave-by-cave combat to the American and British commandos.
But hundreds of al Qaeda warriors, mostly Arabs and Pakistanis, escaped south toward the Pakistan border. The Americans are hunting them, using classified tactics, stealth and night-vision gear to see the enemy first.
Pakistan has stationed thousands of troops on the border and has captured several hundred al Qaeda fighters. The U.S. worries that those who evade both the Americans and the Pakistanis will eventually make it to another country and plan new terror missions.
The military source told of one incident earlier this week. A special-operations team spotted 22 al Qaeda fighters moving along a trail. They positively identified them as al Qaeda, but then had to wait for approval from Tampa. The delay forced them to reposition twice, jeopardizing the element of surprise.
The official said they finally got approval to fire and killed the al Qaeda fighters.
The overall mission in Afghanistan, as stated frequently by Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and Gen. Franks, is to eliminate the Taliban leadership and all of al Qaeda. Mr. Rumsfeld has often said any al Qaeda warriors who escape will be free to create mischief in other countries.
He praised coordination between his troops and the Pakistani border guards.
"We have people who are communicating with them and doing everything humanly possible to avoid having the people that we're pressing in Afghanistan from moving into neighboring countries where they could cause damage and terrorist acts there," Mr. Rumsfeld said. "Our goal is to stop them, not to simply move the problem from one nation to another."
Mr. Rumsfeld described the enemy as "dangerous and armed."
That point was driven home on Wednesday when captured al Qaeda fighters seized the weapons of Pakistani guards while being moved in a bus to a jail. Fourteen guards and al Qaeda troops were killed.


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