- The Washington Times - Friday, December 28, 2001

With the Taliban vanquished, the U.S. military in Afghanistan has shifted its mission to three main tasks that could determine whether the new government survives and whether al Qaeda cells collapse around the world.
U.S. special-operations troops, aided by anti-Taliban Afghans, are searching Tora Bora to determine once and for all whether American bombing killed Osama bin Laden in a cave hide-out.
At the same time, commandos and air assets continue to hunt remaining pockets of Taliban and al Qaeda terrorists to ensure they do not hide, regroup and start a guerrilla war.
In Kandahar in southern Afghanistan, the military is guarding and interrogating a growing number of key al Qaeda operatives who are providing insights into how bin Laden's terror network operates globally. The question is part of a much larger evidence-collection operation.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said yesterday the intelligence from terrorist camps and leadership compounds "has been very helpful in understanding al Qaeda and understanding how terrorists approach things and what they're doing and what they're thinking about doing."
The evidence, he told reporters at the Pentagon, has "led directly to preventing terrorist attacks."
On the cave search, the Pentagon is offering financial inducements to anti-Taliban forces to return to Tora Bora and search for bin Laden and al Qaeda fighters.
The promise of money, equipment and winter clothing comes after Army Gen. Tommy Franks, who commands the Afghanistan campaign, decided against sending Marines from Kandahar to Tora Bora to join the search.
Afghan forces won the battle of Tora Bora two weeks ago, with the help of American special-operations forces and intense U.S. bombings. With al Qaeda fighters routed, most Afghans left the area.
But the United States views the task as far from done. The buried caves may contain the bodies of bin Laden; his top aide, Ayman al Zawahiri; and other lieutenants. Commandos also are hunting small groups of Arab al Qaeda fighters who survived the bombing but remained in Afghanistan rather than make a 30-mile mad dash to the Pakistani border.
Mr. Rumsfeld yesterday declared victory on one front.
"The Taliban have been driven from power," he said. "Their leaders are on the run. And thanks to so many nations' efforts and the extraordinary men and women of the defense establishment Americans are celebrating this holiday season as they were meant to. We have now achieved that one goal."
An interim, multiethnic government assumed power Saturday. Elections are to be held in six months.
On winning help for the cave search, Air Force Gen. Richard B. Myers, Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman, said: "There are many ways to incentivize the opposition groups, and it may be that cold-weather clothing is more important than money and so forth. But all that is being worked to solicit their cooperation in this endeavor."
The Pentagon did receive good news on another Tora Bora issue. Pakistan, which stationed troops along the border and caught more than 200 fleeing al Qaeda guerrillas, has told Washington it will keep the troops on station.
There were fears President Pervez Musharraf would redeploy forces to the border with India as those two long-time rivals braced for possible war.
"They have not yet moved forces from the Afghan border, and that is very encouraging to us because it would be a big disappointment to us because they are performing an important task," Mr. Rumsfeld said.
Gen. Franks privately had complained of the difficulty in persuading the Afghan eastern alliance to help in the cave search. But officials say sending hundreds of Marines from the Kandahar airport to Tora Bora would have spread the force too thin at a time when Marines are responsible for guarding an increasing number of prisoners.
The United States took custody of another 20 detainees Wednesday. It now is guarding 45 al Qaeda and Taliban fighters 37 at the Kandahar airfield and eight on the assault ship USS Peleliu in the Arabian Sea.
Mr. Rumsfeld confirmed reports that the Pentagon is planning to move detainees to the U.S. Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, although he said the base is a "number of weeks" away from being ready to accept the fighters.
He said there are no plans at this time to hold military tribunals there. President Bush has authorized the use of tribunals to try terrorist suspects to protect disclosing intelligence sources and methods in open court.
On Wednesday, U.S. Central Command conducted the first air strike in four days in Afghanistan. Heavy bombers and Navy jets bombed a Taliban command center near the town of Ghazni, south of Kabul.
"We had reports that put some of the Taliban leadership in that facility," Gen. Myers said, disputing reports from some in Afghanistan that scores of civilians were killed.
"We're confident enough and had watched it long enough that we felt we could strike it," the general said.
Gen. Myers returned Monday from a visit to the troops in the region.
"They are absolutely doing a superb job over there," he said. "The morale is high, because they understand how important the mission is not only to this country but to the world. And they're serving in some pretty tough conditions in many cases."

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Copyright © 2019 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide