KABUL, Afghanistan With the hunt for Osama bin Laden and his associates bogging down in regional and tribal politics, American officials say they are facing the unsettling prospect that al Qaeda members are slipping away into Iran.
Senior Afghan intelligence and security officials believe that about 1,000 al Qaeda members are on the run and still fighting in Afghanistan, but they say hundreds more, including senior leaders, are crossing the borders into Iran and Pakistan.
These officials say that if the United States wants to successfully complete its war on terror inside Afghanistan, it needs to put more ground forces into the hunt for fleeing al Qaeda and Taliban officials.
Senior American officials say Iran, which shares a 600-mile border with Afghanistan, may be abetting the escape of al Qaeda and Taliban members and also frustrating the U.S. war on terror. There are also reports that Iran is aiding militants, including the Pashtun fundamentalist leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who are not at all supportive of Afghanistan’s interim administration.
“We are concerned that some al Qaeda people have skipped westward, and the interim authority [in Kabul] is concerned about those people because they played a great role in the destruction of Afghanistan,” said a senior American diplomat. “I think Iran needs to consider the consequences of going that route.”
From forces near Herat receiving support from Iran in the east, to tribal chieftains on both sides of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border in the west and south, some of whom side with al Qaeda, the United States faces a complex web of regional players who could foil the search for the world’s most-wanted man and his associates.
In the southeast provinces of Khost and Paktia, where the U.S. military has recently focused its aerial and limited ground assaults, senior Afghan intelligence and security officials warn that hundreds of al Qaeda fighters are dispersing before and after each bombing raid. American forces, they say, are unlikely to net the people they are most anxious to catch unless far more ground troops thousands, not hundreds as are now being used are sent in to grab them.
“With the current strategy of bombing from the air, the al Qaeda fighters merely disperse in any direction they choose often with the cooperation of locals,” said Engineer Ali, Afghanistan’s chief of intelligence for border and tribal areas.
When bin Laden and several top associates escaped U.S. bombing raids and an Afghan-led ground assault on the al Qaeda mountain complex at Tora Bora last month, between 1,000 and 2,000 al Qaeda members fled south into Pakistan and southwest through remote mountain passes, many of them ending up in Paktia and Khost provinces.
The Yemeni military chief of the Tora Bora base is now operating out of Khost and Paktia, while Afghan officials believe Maulvi Jalaludin Haqqani, the Taliban’s armed forces chief, is operating in the shadows in the same area, or just across the border in Pakistan.
Mr. Ali said that about 200 U.S. ground troops were airlifted into the Khost area two weeks ago, but were later pulled back. The troops managed to capture several important al Qaeda members, suggesting that such ground deployments can sometimes be very effective in the rugged, snowbound mountains of eastern Afghanistan.
But Afghan intelligence chief Abdullah Tawheedi says the hunt would be far more effective if U.S. military forces were working more closely with the Northern Alliance-dominated Afghan military. “If they work together with [our forces], we can finish this in one month,” he said.
But Mr. Ali, the Afghan intelligence chief for border and tribal areas, says the fight in Khost against al Qaeda has gone poorly not only because of the shortage of ground forces, but also because local Afghans are not yet convinced it’s in their interest to help in the hunt.
“It is a tribal system and, for now, the leaders don’t agree with the way the fight is being conducted there,” he said. Scores of Afghan villagers have been reported killed in the U.S. aerial assaults in Khost and Paktia, which came directly from the heavy bombing raids on Tora Bora in November and December.
While bin Laden was reported to have escaped into Pakistan, he and other operatives could well find Iran an equally attractive destination. Escapees can scale the mountains south along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, then cut through Afghanistan’s southernmost provinces and head west toward the border with Iran. Before returning to his mountain redoubt at Tora Bora and then escaping again, bin Laden is believed to have traveled south in November with his right-hand man, Ayman Al-Zawahiri, who never returned and has since disappeared from the U.S. military’s radar screen.
The route to Iran is a well-worn human smuggling track that has been traveled by some 2 million Afghan refugees in the past 20 years.
After President Bush himself warned against harboring members of al Qaeda, Iran’s Foreign Ministry flatly denied it had any role in ferrying the fugitives to safety. Afghan officials in Kabul said they did not believe Iran was helping al Qaeda in any way. But an Iranian official in the region said that for the right price, almost anyone including senior al Qaeda or Taliban members could enter his country with the help of people-smugglers.
The official, sitting alongside a photograph of the late Iranian religious leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, denied that the Iranian government had any hand in the smuggling rackets. He stressed that Tehran was committed to upholding international peacemaking efforts in Afghanistan.
“All the people in these smuggling rackets are working only for money, and many of them are armed with weapons far more sophisticated than those being held by our own border guards,” he said.
American officials say that aid to the escapees could also be coming from hard-line political forces in Iran that oppose Iranian President Mohammed Khatami, who often speaks in favor of Western cooperation.
As was the case for the two countries after NATO’s intervention in Bosnia on the side of the Muslim-led government there, Iran and the United States now find themselves awkward partners in the peace process for Afghanistan. American officials, who now appear to be accusing Iran of assisting their enemy, had earlier spoken of a convergence of political interests and expressed great hopes of working directly with Tehran to combat terror.
Some Western military analysts have praised Washington for avoiding a massive ground invasion of Afghanistan that might have upset Iran and its neighboring Arab states.
But Afghan officials, who receive significant financial support from both Washington and Tehran, are now suggesting that a much heavier American ground contingent is now needed.
“The main problem in the last three months of war has been that, while the U.S. has destroyed al Qaeda’s terror network, it has not eradicated its members,” said Gen. Juraat Khan Panjshiri, Afghanistan’s national security chief. “If the Americans don’t want to repeat the mistakes of Tora Bora, they will have to send in more ground troops to complement their aerial strategy. We’d also be able to help them better on the ground if this was done.”
American officials insist that Afghan officials have not been critical of their air war against al Qaeda.
“The danger is that if we stop the bombing, declare victory, and go home, these pockets [of al Qaeda] could regroup and challenge the authority,” said a senior U.S. official. “If, for example, we stop the bombing prematurely, and in a few weeks, Kandahar falls again to the Taliban, then what?”