Monday, February 23, 2004

The Pentagon is moving elements of a supersecret commando unit from Iraq to the Afghanistan theater to step up the hunt for Osama bin Laden.

A Defense Department official said there are two reasons for repositioning parts of Task Force 121: First, most high-value human targets in Iraq, including Saddam Hussein, have been caught or killed. Second, intelligence reports are increasing on the whereabouts of bin Laden, the terror leader behind the September 11 attacks.

“Iraq has become more of a policing problem than a hunt for high-value Iraqis,” the defense official said. “Afghanistan is the place where 121 can do more.”

Task forces typically change names when they move, so it is likely that the commando unit arriving in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region will take a new name.

Task Force 121 is a mix of Army Delta Force soldiers and Navy SEALs, transported on helicopters from the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment. The SEALs and soldiers are based at Joint Special Operations Command in Fort Bragg, N.C.

Delta-SEAL teams typically move into theater, practice missions and wait for military and CIA intelligence to provide the location of a target, such as Saddam.

The new task force to hunt bin Laden in the Afghanistan area likely will be led by a Navy SEAL who was toasted in Washington while working antiterrorism issues in the Bush administration. The Washington Times is withholding his name because of the secret nature of the operation.

Military sources said reports of bin Laden’s movements are becoming more numerous as the fugitive Saudi, leader of the al Qaeda terrorist network, hides in the mountainous terrain straddling the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.

“They’re getting better intelligence, and they’ve gotten better at fusing the intelligence,” a second defense source said.

A CIA-military intelligence team conducted a similar operation in Iraq to catch Saddam. Officers made a schematic of family members and Ba’athist officials close to Saddam and questioned them on his whereabouts. The team hit pay dirt when a recently detained Iraqi revealed precise information on the ousted dictator’s whereabouts on a farm south of Tikrit.

Task Force 121 joined a 4th Infantry Division unit Dec. 13 in raiding the farm and finding Saddam hidden in a hole.

The commando task force took Saddam to Tikrit in a Special Operations “Little Bird” helicopter before he was imprisoned in the Baghdad area.

Speculation that the United States is close to finding bin Laden heightened last month when military officers in Afghanistan predicted that the terror leader would be killed or captured by year’s end.

“We have a variety of intelligence, and we’re sure we’re going to catch Osama bin Laden and [Taliban leader] Mullah [Mohammed] Omar this year,” Army Lt. Col. Bryan Hilferty, spokesman for U.S. forces in Afghanistan, said in January. “We’ve learned lessons from Iraq, and we’re getting improved intelligence from the Afghan people.”

A few days earlier, Lt. Gen. David Barno, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, told the BBC: “You can be assured that we’re putting a renewed emphasis on closing this out and bringing these two individuals to justice, as well as the other senior leadership of that organization. They represent a threat to the entire world, and they need to be destroyed.”

Bin Laden is thought to be in the lawless tribal areas along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. Officials say U.S. troops do not cross into Pakistan, leaving the hunt on the ground for bin Laden to the CIA and the Pakistan army.

But specific intelligence on bin Laden’s whereabouts might prompt the use of a Delta-SEAL task force to raid his Pakistan hide-out, officials say.

Gen. John Abizaid, chief of U.S. Central Command, recently praised Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf’s willingness to send troops into unfriendly tribal areas, where bin Laden reportedly is popular.

“I talk to him frequently,” Gen. Abizaid said of Gen. Musharraf. “I just visited him the other day. I saw him after one of two assassination attempts. He knows that al Qaeda is trying to kill him, and he absolutely, positively wants to get the problem under control.

“But there are difficulties that he has that are associated with working in the tribal areas that he has to work through on his own,” Gen. Abizaid said.

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