- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 25, 2002

The Pentagon said yesterday there may be "thousands" of al Qaeda followers in Afghanistan and Pakistan, as those fighters and the Taliban are working in small groups to mount a guerrilla war.

"We've seen estimates from hundreds and estimates to thousands," Air Force Brig. Gen. John W. Rosa Jr., deputy director for regional operations, told reporters at the Pentagon. "But once they disperse and break up, I don't think anybody knows the true answer."

Defense officials say there were perhaps 4,000 al Qaeda members in Afghanistan when the U.S.-led war began Oct. 7. Most were killed or fled to Pakistan, where they are trying to regroup.

The United States has responded by fighting a two-front war, one in Afghanistan, the other in Pakistan, where local soldiers are doing most of the searches and raids. They are supported by Army Delta Force and Navy SEALs, part of the Task Force 11 that is attempting to wipe out the al Qaeda and Taliban leadership.

"Clearly, there continue to be pockets of al Qaeda and Taliban, and we continue to go after them," Pentagon spokeswoman Victoria Clarke said. "And as we've said all along, we'll adapt tactics and techniques and resources for what was required."

She added, "There continue to be pockets of Al Qaeda there. The flip side is, we've made it much harder for them to do business there. We have eliminated to the largest extent possible, I think, all the terrorist training camps that were training hundreds and thousands of these people. We have significantly debilitated their capabilities in Afghanistan."

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld for months has cautioned that much remains to be done for some 7,500 U.S. troops in Afghanistan before declaring victory.

Giving a report card on the war at the nine-month mark, Mr. Rumsfeld said U.S. troops have made the transition from major battles to searches and skirmishes.

"Our operations today consist mainly of smaller operations, cave-by-cave searches, sweeps for arms, intelligence, small pockets of terrorists as they have dispersed understandably," Mr. Rumsfeld said.

The exact number of the enemy has always been an elusive figure. The Pentagon estimated Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda forces at up to 4,000. The Taliban was thought to oversee an armed force of perhaps 20,000.

Many of those have been killed or fled to Pakistan and points south and west. Hundreds of Taliban followers returned to their villages and resumed lives as farmers. Others are trying to wage a guerrilla war against the new government of Hamid Karzai.

Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar remains at large in southeastern Afghanistan, accompanied by a small army of loyalists. Bin Laden, if he is alive, is likely moving in Pakistan's western tribal areas. U.S. intelligence has not picked up confirmed information on him since mid-December.

Gen. Rosa said U.S. forces and their Afghan allies yesterday found more weapons caches in southeastern Afghanistan, including 400 rocket-propelled grenades and 20 cases of land mines.

Mr. Rumsfeld told The Washington Times in a June 27 interview that he ordered commanders to stop automatically destroying seized weapons and to save the best arms for the emerging Afghan armed forces.

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