- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 9, 2001

The Pentagon is in no hurry to try to catch or kill Osama bin Laden as it orchestrates a step-by-step bombing campaign over Afghanistan.
Bush administration officials said an early demise of the elusive terrorist mastermind could result in international pressure to stop the 2-day-old strikes before allies achieve the prime objective: uprooting the terrorists' operations in Afghanistan.
Besides, destroying the ruling Taliban military first will make catching bin Laden easier by letting American and British special-operations troops move more freely around the country's austere, hilly terrain.
"I prefer to follow a 'bin Laden last' policy," said a senior administration official. "If you nab bin Laden or kill him, a lot of the war would end up being over, and the network would survive."
Of course, added the official, if bin Laden suddenly showed himself, the administration would try to eliminate him on the spot.
The Pentagon is working through a target list that includes homes and camps known to be visited by bin Laden, who is now in hiding. The Saudi-exile has directed his terror group, al Qaeda, from Afghanistan since 1996, when the ruling Taliban militia provided him a haven.
"He seems to orbit around Kandahar," said one official, referring to the birthplace of the hard-line Taliban movement in a city south of the capital of Kabul. "He also lived in camps near Kabul."
President Bush has said he wants bin Laden "dead or alive" for orchestrating the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. But the White House has repeatedly downplayed the importance of eliminating bin Laden, saying his network and other terrorists must also be neutralized. Officials say these statements are designed, in part, to head off international calls for the United States to tone down its military strikes once bin Laden is caught.
Most of the first 31 targets hit on Sunday were air-defense sites and Taliban leadership facilities that the Pentagon wants to hit in order to minimize threats to allied strike aircraft. Phase two, officials say, will call for taking down the Taliban military, piece by piece, so various anti-Taliban rebels can capture Kabul and try to form a new, more centrist government.
A military officer said the first night of attacks was not specifically designed to hit bin Laden. "The only objectives were to kill obvious things out in the open before they move in to neutralize defenses to allow us to fly with impunity day and night, when we'll work on harder targets," the officer said.
At that stage, the allies may attempt a series of special-operations ground actions aimed at killing terrorists, including bin Laden. "It will be a classic special- ops operation," said a Pentagon source.
Of bin Laden's whereabouts, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld told NBC yesterday, "It's pretty clear he's in Afghanistan somewhere."
The Pentagon source said Mr. Rumsfeld's statement is based on the fact that the United States has received no information that bin Laden has crossed the country's border. The United States has fixed a variety of intelligence assets on Afghanistan to detect any movements by bin Laden and his private army.
Mr. Rumsfeld said before Sunday's attack that the Pentagon has a "handle" on bin Laden's whereabouts but not his "coordinates."
The Pentagon source said "handle" refers to Afghanistan, while "coordinates" would be the general area. "What we need is his address," the source said.
According to administration officials and opposition sources, bin Laden and al Qaeda control a force of about 3,000 soldiers. Within that layer of protection is a group of about 40 fiercely loyal bodyguards.
"This guy is not going to move without security," said the Pentagon source. "He always keeps people around him. That means he would have to find an overland route where no people would be at the border to stop him."
If he is holed up in a cave, the United States would have the option of bombing the site or sending in secret warriors.
Bin Laden's al Qaeda warriors and the Taliban military are assumed by Pentagon planners to own portable anti-aircraft missiles, including U.S.-made Stingers and Soviet SA-7s.
The arsenal will force allied planes to stay generally above 10,000 feet, out of range of those missiles and anti-aircraft guns.
Asked if ground forces had fired Stingers at American aircraft, Gen. Richard Myers, Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman, told reporters, "Yes. We just assume that some of those were the Stingers missiles, because we know they have those man-portable surface-to-air missiles, so we assume some of them were fired."
The CIA transferred about 1,000 heat-seeking Stingers in the 1980s to the mujahideen fighting the Soviet occupation force. The rebels fired about 400, defense sources say, and kept most of the rest. The weapon's lethal performance proved to be the deciding factor in Moscow recalling its troops.

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