- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 3, 2001

The Pentagon said yesterday it is getting closer to catching terrorist leader Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan as harsh weather hampered getting additional U.S. forces on the ground.

"He's an elusive character," said Rear Adm. John Stufflebeem, deputy director for operations on the Joint Staff. "It's going to be a difficult problem, but we're determined to be able to do it."

Last night, a U.S. helicopter on a special forces mission went down due to severe weather in Afghanistan, but there were no U.S. casualties, the Pentagon said.

The crew, four of whom were injured, was rescued by a second helicopter.

The Pentagon said F-14 Tomcats from the carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt destroyed the damaged helicopter, a standard procedure in cases where high-tech items are lost.

Yesterday's crash highlights the difficulties faced by U.S. forces due to the country's harsh climate and rugged terrain in capturing bin Laden, the leader of the al Qaeda terrorist network, who is suspected of masterminding the September 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

U.S. officials said intelligence reports have stated that bin Laden is believed to be in hiding in a cave or underground command bunker in central Afghanistan.

Adm. Stufflebeem said the military is confident bin Laden will eventually be attacked but he declined to say when that might take place.

"We are tightening the noose," he said, echoing remarks by President Bush. "We are confident in some of our capabilities to be able to help tighten this noose. And there is, one, a resolute mission to do this, firstly; and secondly, we have the means. It's a matter of time."

Adm. Stufflebeem said it is difficult to know when U.S. forces are close to striking al Qaeda's terrorist leaders.

"I'm sure that there are times when we feel very close and other times it's a shadow," he said. "So it is most accurate that the noose is tightening, the country is getting much smaller."

Harsh weather, including freezing rain in parts of Afghanistan, is hampering the military's efforts to bring in teams of special-operations commandos who are assisting anti-Taliban opposition groups and providing spotters for U.S. bombing strikes.

"I think within the last 24 hours, it would be fair to report that weather has been hampering our efforts," he said. "But we won't stop."

Intelligence reports from Afghanistan also indicate that there are clashes between opposition forces and those of the ruling Taliban militia, and that the U.S. military is working to set up supply routes to southern opposition groups.

"We are working to be able to establish the relationships with those tribes who are opposing the Taliban," said Adm. Stufflebeem.

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said on Thursday that the Pentagon has hesitated to provide arms and equipment to some opposition groups because of their uncertain allegiances and the possibility that they might not use the goods, but instead sell them to the Taliban.

Asked about U.S. coordination with opposition groups, Adm. Stufflebeem said the military is trying to get with them "and build trust."

"And once you see how they operate, you then know whom you can trust and who you probably should not," he said.

Adm. Stufflebeem described many of the opposition groups as "survivalists."

"And in that vein, they may change allegiances at a tactical moment for whatever it is that they need or want to do," he said. "So we're going to make sure that with our forces who are embedded, that they'll be able to know whom it is we can and can't trust, and make sure we get the right equipment and right stuff to the right people."

U.S. officials have said the ethnic Tajik group headed by Afghan commander Ismail Khan has asked for U.S. arms and assistance for his forces in northeastern Afghanistan. The Hazara tribe located in the central mountains has also asked for U.S. aid to fight the Taliban, said the officials.

Taliban spies also appear to be alerting its forces to approaching U.S. aircraft with tactical radios, said Adm. Stufflebeem. The advance word allows the Taliban troops to "take cover, and use caves, as well," he said.

Adm. Stufflebeem said the Pentagon is deploying a long-range unmanned aerial vehicle known as Global Hawk to the region, but he declined to say what kind of mission the surveillance drone would undertake.

Also, the JSTARS aircraft has been dispatched. The four-engine aircraft is capable of tracking hundreds of targets on the ground, such as vehicles and directing forces to attack them.

"That will be helpful when you're looking for trucks or SUVs or others that are moving around," he said.

The CIA currently is operating an experimental version of a Predator unmanned aerial vehicle that is equipped with air-launched missiles.

Regarding clashes between Northern Alliance forces and the Taliban, Adm. Stufflebeem said the Taliban is having "extreme trouble" with resupplying its forces near the strategic town of Mazar-e-Sharif.

"The Northern Alliance objective is to take the Mazar-e-Sharif airport and to take the city," he said. "They're doing that in a number of actions over a course of a number of groups. So it's a very fluid environment on the ground there."

Asked about the prospects of a Northern Alliance offensive, Adm. Stufflebeem said: "I do believe they can pull it off. I, personally, can't characterize how soon it would be."

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