U.S. warplanes attacked a terrorist base in Afghanistan for a fourth day yesterday as the Pentagon, frustrated over its failure to catch Osama bin Laden, said it will no longer discuss the locations of elusive Taliban and al Qaeda leaders.
Pentagon officials said the base near Zhawar Kili has been a place where Taliban and al Qaeda forces have been regrouping since last week. They declined to discuss details of the continuing bombing raids on an area of eastern Afghanistan where tanks, artillery and armored vehicles have been spotted days after earlier bombing raids.
“It’s an ongoing operation,” said Rear Adm. John Stufflebeem, deputy director of operations for the Joint Staff.
“We had bombed there on [Jan. 3 and 4]; we bombed again yesterday. But we’re not done there.”
Adm. Stufflebeem said the military is “finding stuff, and we’re attacking that stuff.”
The base is located in Paktia province, which Adm. Stufflebeem described as a “hotbed of support” for al Qaeda terrorists who have set up a large training and supply complex in the area.
The targeted area comprises above-ground facilities and two cave areas.
“After the strikes from the third and the fourth over this weekend, lo and behold we find tanks, so something is coming out of the ground, and we’re after it,” Adm. Stufflebeem said.
In Florida, the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan said yesterday that bin Laden had been in the caves of Tora Bora but that his current location is unknown.
Gen. Tommy Franks, commander in chief of the Central Command, said the search in that region is ending. “We’ll have that pretty well cleared and will be out of there in the next day or so,” Gen. Franks told the Associated Press.
Gen. Franks also said U.S. military would take charge of one or two senior Taliban or al Qaeda leaders in the next day or two.
Meanwhile, Reuters news agency, quoting unidentified sources in Pakistan, reported that a 14-year-old boy is suspected of killing U.S. Green Beret Sgt. Nathan Ross Chapman in an ambush in Afghanistan last week.
A group of tribal elders was forced to delay a meeting in Khowst to decide whether to hand over the boy to U.S. authorities after he vanished, the news agency stated.
In other developments, a group of U.S. senators arrived in Afghanistan yesterday and were greeted at Bagram air base by the country’s new interim leader, Hamid Karzai. British Prime Minister Tony Blair also traveled to Afghanistan yesterday after visiting India and Pakistan.
Regarding the hunt for Taliban and al Qaeda leaders, the Pentagon will no longer discuss its efforts to capture bin Laden and Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar, after officials earlier had said they were close to capturing them several times, Adm. Stufflebeem said.
Adm. Stufflebeem said the military has been “walking somewhat close to the edge of the ice” in identifying possible locations of Taliban and al Qaeda leaders.
“And I think from this point, from a Joint Staff perspective, we will stop speculating openly about where they may be at or where they think they’re at as we build this intelligence picture which will allow us to have, if you will, the sanctuary to be able to move when the time is right without giving anything away,” he said. The Pentagon has detained and killed “senior leadership,” and others remain at large, Adm. Stufflebeem said.
Last week, U.S. officials said Mullah Omar had been cornered with some 1,500 fighters in an area northwest of Kandahar, and Afghan interim government officials said they were negotiating for a surrender.
The negotiations apparently were a ruse, as the fighters did not surrender and Mullah Omar escaped.
“We probably assumed a little too much or I would say some assumed a little too much in believing that the negotiations that were ongoing were on the behalf of Mullah Omar,” Adm. Stufflebeem said.
The talks instead led to no prisoners and the loss of the 1,500 fighters, he said.
“Now, whether or not Mullah Omar was ever there, we don’t know,” Adm. Stufflebeem said. “And we’re stepping back now in terms of a tactic, if you will, and stop talking about what we think was, or what we thought it was.”
The Pentagon has decided to “stop chasing the shadows,” he said, instead focusing on “pockets of resistance” and developing “a better intelligence picture.”
Adm. Stufflebeem said the focus of military operations is on locating al Qaeda and Taliban leaders, interrogating prisoners and preparing to move them to a military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
The main air strikes, including some 250 guided bombs that were dropped since last week, were aimed at a camp at Zhawar Kili where “we found a number of tracked military vehicles and artillery pieces after last week’s strikes, and we have worked again to destroy them from the air,” Adm. Stufflebeem said.
The strikes were carried out after al Qaeda forces attempted to regroup their forces at the base.
Near the town of Khowst, the military also attacked a small number of anti-aircraft weapons on Sunday, he said.
The U.S. military now has a total of 346 detainees who have been captured in Afghanistan, including 300 held at Kandahar, 21 at Bagram and 16 in Mazar-e-Sharif. Nine high-interest prisoners are being held on the Navy’s USS Bataan ship.
“We expect to be able to begin transfer shortly of many of these detainees to the facilities in Guantanamo Bay,” Adm. Stufflebeem said.