- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 7, 2004

KABUL, Afghanistan — U.S. special operations snipers killed nine suspected Taliban militants in the Afghan mountains bordering Pakistan, the military said yesterday, marking one of American forces’ deadliest engagement in months.

The military would not say if the clash marked the start of a promised spring offensive to capture Osama bin Laden, though a spokesman said the fighting began when as many as 40 suspected Taliban tried to flank the position held by the Americans and their Afghan army allies.

The Friday operation involved a roughly 10-man U.S. special-operations group, and occurred near Orgun, 20 miles from the Pakistan border, a military spokesman said. None of the U.S. soldiers or their Afghan allies was injured or killed.

On Thursday, American forces detained 14 suspected Taliban north of Khost, another Afghan town near the Pakistan border.

Over the past two weeks, U.S. commanders have pledged what they call a hammer-and-anvil approach for the spring thaw into summer, with the crucial support of Pakistani troops on their own side of the Afghan frontier.

Under that plan, the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region where terror suspects are thought to be hiding becomes the anvil against which terror suspects would be hammered, the military said.

With bin Laden and other top al Qaeda and Taliban fugitives as the subject of redoubled U.S. attention, the world’s news organizations are rapidly boosting staff in the Afghan capital, Kabul. But after touting the planned offensive, the U.S. military now appears bent on tamping down expectations.

“I don’t have any other information about Osama bin Laden,” military spokesman Lt. Col. Bryan Hilferty said at a news conference yesterday at the U.S. base in Kabul.

Col. Hilferty addressed reporters before a budding almond tree, its white blooms testifying to the warming air in the Kabul Valley, and the melting snow in the Afghanistan-Pakistan mountains, where bin Laden may be hiding.

“If I knew where he was, I would go get him,” he said. In January, Col. Hilferty had said he was “sure” the United States and its allies would catch bin Laden by the end of the year.

Pakistan’s interior minister echoed that sentiment in a television interview broadcast yesterday, saying it is only a matter of time before bin Laden and his followers are captured.

“There is an operation going on,” Faisal Saleh Hayyat told the Dubai-based Al Arabiya satellite channel. “Osama bin Laden or some of his followers will probably be captured within days or weeks if these operations continue. Also, perhaps it will take more time until they are captured.”

Col. Hilferty yesterday did not specifically answer a question about whether the latest operations were the start of the promised spring offensive, reminding reporters that there had been patrols throughout the winter as well.

He denied one recent report that U.S. forces were hunting bin Laden in Tora Bora, the same cave complex pounded by U.S. forces throughout December 2001 in the belief the al Qaeda leader was hiding there.

No American forces under U.S. Central Command were carrying out any extraordinary operations there, he said.

Mayor Haji Abdullah, whose Pachir Wa Agam district abuts Tora Bora, said he had seen no American military vehicles nor aircraft in recent days. Local residents agreed.

Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, a vital U.S. ally in the war against terror, on Feb. 24 began what was Pakistan’s fourth sweep in tribal-held lands bordering Afghanistan — traditionally off-limits to the country’s military.

Simultaneously, Pakistan’s government was arresting tribal leaders for failing to turn over terror suspects — employing a British colonial-era practice.

American tactics inside Afghanistan are changing as well. U.S. commanders are deploying smaller troop units, sent out with a mission to become better acquainted in Afghan communities.

Col. Hilferty said yesterday the tactic already was yielding better intelligence.

So far, however, there have been no big breaks — or at least none that has been announced.

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