- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 29, 2001

CRAWFORD, Texas President Bush yesterday predicted that U.S. forces would remain in Afghanistan "for quite a long period of time" and dismissed Osama bin Laden as a marginalized figure who has been decimated by the American offensive and might already be dead.
"I mean, this is a guy who, three months ago, was in control of a country," Mr. Bush told reporters at his 1,600-acre ranch. "Now he's maybe in control of a cave."
Mr. Bush, who was accompanied by Gen. Tommy Franks, ground commander of the war, acknowledged that if bin Laden is still alive, it might take a long time to find him. And even if American troops locate him soon, U.S. forces will remain in Afghanistan indefinitely to mop up military operations and process prisoners of war.
"The American people just must understand, when I said that we need to be patient, that I meant it," Mr. Bush said. "And we're going to be there for a while. And I don't know the exact moment when we leave, but it's not until this mission is complete."
Mr. Bush said he will rely on Gen. Franks to tell him when to order a withdrawal, but Gen. Franks also refused to be pinned down on a timetable.
"We'll stay in Afghanistan as long as it takes to do what the president has said," Gen. Franks said.
As evidence that U.S. objectives are not complete, Gen. Franks confirmed that his helicopter had to take evasive maneuvers during a recent flight in Afghanistan.
"I have been told since I took that helicopter ride that someone took a shot at the helicopter," he said in response to a question from The Washington Times. "I didn't see it when it happened, and I believe it may have happened.
"But then again, this is Afghanistan, and we have pockets of Taliban still in that country," he said. "And that's one of the reasons that we're going to stay there until we have mopped all that up."
Another reason is that U.S. forces have not finished searching caves in Tora Bora and other parts of Afghanistan that have been used by bin Laden and members of his al Qaeda terrorist network.
"We don't know whether some of these people are in those caves," Mr. Bush said. "But Tommy did a fine job of shutting them down. They may still be locked up in there.
"We're sending troops up in that region to take a look at some of the caves to find out what's in there, and we're going to have to dig some of them out."
Meanwhile, the Pentagon declined yesterday to rule out renewed air strikes in Afghanistan, despite pressure from the new interim government to stop bombing.
"We have very seldom ruled out anything," Victoria Clarke, spokesman for the Defense Department, told reporters when asked about an Afghan Defense Ministry request to finish bombing. "And we will do what it takes to achieve what it is we're trying to achieve."
Mrs. Clarke said 25 more captured bin Laden followers had been taken under U.S. control Thursday, bringing to 62 the number held in Kandahar. In addition, eight are being held aboard the amphibious assault ship Pelelieu in the northern Arabian Sea.
The latest contingent was transferred from Pakistan to U.S. Marines based at Kandahar airport, she said. The United States is preparing to bring al Qaeda and Taliban detainees to the U.S. Naval Station at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, for more interrogation.
Mr. Bush said he didn't watch the most recent videotape of bin Laden, a 34-minute message aired by the Al Jazeera television network in the Middle East. He said he caught a few "snippets" of the tape on television but shrugged it off along with conflicting reports of bin Laden's whereabouts.
"He's on the run, if he's running at all," the president said. "So we don't know whether he's in a cave with the door shut or a cave with the door open."
But he added that bin Laden is no longer functioning as "the parasite that had invaded the host, the Taliban."
"We know that for certain. And we also know that we're on a hunt. And he knows that we're on a hunt. And I like our position better than his," he said.
Still, Mr. Bush said he is receiving daily intelligence reports that indicate "bin Laden and his cronies would like to harm America again." Such reports prompted the president to say last week that 2002 might be a "war year."
Yesterday, he added: "I hope 2002 is a year of peace, but I'm also realistic."
The president promised fair treatment for John Walker, an American who joined the Taliban to fight against the United States. But he added that Walker "made a terrible decision" when he began "working with the enemy."
"We'll see how the courts deal with that," Mr. Bush said. "Our system is such that he'll have proper justice."
Mr. Bush said the nation must remain vigilant against attacks. He praised an American Airlines stewardess for noticing a passenger who was trying to ignite explosives in his shoes aboard a flight from France to the United States.
"The shoe bomber was a case in point, where the country has been on alert," the president said. "It's an indication that the culture of America has shifted to one of alertness, and I'm grateful for the flight attendant's response, as I'm sure the passengers on that airplane [are]."
Mr. Bush was less enthusiastic about American Airlines, which on Tuesday removed an Arab-American member of his security detail from a flight to Texas. The airline said the man's ethnicity had nothing to do with the episode.
Still, when asked yesterday by The Times whether he was upset about the incident, Mr. Bush said: "Yes, I was. I talked to the man this morning. I told him how proud I was that he was by my side. He's here on the ranch, and he's guarding me.
"There's an inquiry going on as to specifically what took place. But if he was treated that way because of his ethnicity, that will make me madder than heck."
On domestic issues, the president said he is "thinking about" making recess appointments of various federal nominees who were blocked by Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle before the Senate adjourned for the holidays last week.
One of the nominees is Eugene Scalia, who Republicans believe is being blocked from becoming solicitor of the Labor Department by Democrats still angry over the vote of his father, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, in the historic Bush v. Gore case.
"At the appropriate time, I will take a good, hard look at recess appointments," Mr. Bush said in response to a question from The Times. "I'm disappointed that a lot of my appointments were stalled in the United States Senate, weren't given a hearing, you know."
The president chafed when asked by The Times whether the events of September 11 had changed him.
"Talk to my wife," he said. "I don't know. I don't spend a lot of time looking into the mirror, except when I comb my hair."
"And listen, I'll give you a hint," he added. "I liked coming to the ranch before September the 11th; I like coming to the ranch after September the 11th."

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