- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 14, 2001

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said today it is gratifying to see the people of Afghanistan getting their country back but acknowledged that key Taliban leaders have yet to be found.

“Some have been killed, others are hiding, and there are no particular reports of senior leadership having been located,'' Mr. Rumsfeld said in New York, where he toured the World Trade Center ruins. The visit was intended to illustrate why the United States is fighting in Afghanistan.

He said U.S. special forces are watching key roads in southern Afghanistan as Taliban militia forces flee southward.

“They have been interdicting the main roads that connect the north to the south to see what's going on and to stop people that they think ought to be stopped,'' Mr. Rumsfeld said during a brief news conference with New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani.

“We still have a ways to go'' in the hunt for the Taliban and Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida network, Mr. Rumsfeld said. “The Taliban, some pieces of it, are melting into the countryside because they have decided to toss in the towel. In other cases, they may be simply waiting to counterattack at some other time.''

With the northern half of Afghanistan controlled by the anti-Taliban northern alliance, the focus of the fighting now shifts to the south, where U.S. forces have had a much more difficult time drumming up opposition to the Taliban.

At the Pentagon, senior defense officials said the sudden shift of fortunes in Afghanistan has prompted Gen. Tommy Franks, commander of U.S. forces in the war, to prepare a new military plan for tracking down and eliminating leaders of the al-Qaida and the Taliban regime that supports them.

The officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that in the meantime, limited U.S. bombing will continue targeting pockets of Taliban resistance in areas of the north like Konduz, as well as caves and other mountain redoubts in the south where al-Qaida leaders are believed to be hiding.

In what U.S. officials consider a happy coincidence, the scaling back of bombing made possible by the sudden collapse of the Taliban in recent days likely will coincide with the start this weekend of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, the officials said.

The Taliban's spiritual center is the southern city of Kandahar, and its core support comes from the area's majority Pashtun ethnic group. Pentagon spokesman Dick McGraw dismissed reports Wednesday that Kandahar had fallen to rebel troops, saying, “It is far from being a stable situation anywhere yet.''

Southern Afghanistan also has forbidding mountains, deep caves, underground bunkers and scores of other hiding places. Intensified U.S. efforts to search for al-Qaida leadership has centered on such caves, “trying to crush them'' with bombs, Mr. McGraw told reporters at the Pentagon.

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