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New U.S. Effort Steps Up Hunt for bin Laden

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  • MewNews Editor
    New York Times February 29, 2004 New U.S. Effort Steps Up Hunt for bin Laden By DAVID E. SANGER and ERIC SCHMITT
    Message 1 of 1 , Feb 29, 2004
      New York Times
      February 29, 2004
      New U.S. Effort Steps Up Hunt for bin Laden


      WASHINGTON, Feb. 28 � President Bush has approved a
      plan to intensify the effort to capture or kill Osama
      bin Laden, senior administration and military
      officials say, as a combination of better
      intelligence, improving weather and a refocusing of
      resources away from Iraq has reinvigorated the hunt
      along the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan.

      The plan will apply both new forces and new tactics to
      the task, said senior officials in Washington and
      Afghanistan who were interviewed in recent days. The
      group at the center of the effort is Task Force 121,
      the covert commando team of Special Operations forces
      and Central Intelligence Agency officers. The team was
      involved in Saddam Hussein's capture and is gradually
      shifting its forces to Afghanistan to step up the
      search for Mr. bin Laden and Mullah Muhammad Omar, the
      former Taliban leader.

      After a visit to Pakistan earlier this month by the
      the director of central intelligence, George J. Tenet,
      American officials say, President Pervez Musharraf of
      Pakistan appears to be far more seriously committed to
      tracking down Al Qaeda and Taliban militants along the
      semiautonomous border region.

      "Two assassination attempts close together tends to be
      life-focusing," said one senior official who is
      overseeing the new drive, referring to the December
      attacks on General Musharraf.

      Mr. bin Laden and his deputies have painted General
      Musharraf as a lackey of the United States, and many
      officials here believe that Al Qaeda had a role in the
      assassination attempts. General Musharraf has told the
      United States, the senior official said, that "he is
      now willing to be even more helpful" in tracking down
      Qaeda and Taliban militants in the region where Mr.
      bin Laden is still believed to be hiding.

      Under the new plan, officials say, the 11,000 American
      forces in Afghanistan are changing their tactics.
      Rather than carrying out raids and returning to their
      bases, small groups will now remain in Afghan villages
      for days at a time, handing out various forms of aid
      and conducting patrols. By becoming a more permanent,
      familiar presence, American officials say, they hope
      to be able to receive and act on intelligence within
      hours. Such a technique helped them to capture Mr.

      "We're trying to transplant some of the lessons of the
      Saddam capture," one senior official said. "This is
      different territory, and our targets are presumed to
      be moving around. But one lesson we learned in Iraq is
      that, by analogy, there are only a limited number of
      places that someone like Saddam or bin Laden feel

      Similarly, Task Force 121 and the Pakistani forces are
      focusing on Mr. bin Laden's support network, hoping it
      will crack as Mr. Hussein's did.

      With a great deal at stake strategically, symbolically
      and politically, Mr. Bush and his national security
      team have repeatedly met in recent months to refine
      the new approach, and it appears to have been approved
      in the last two months. White House officials will not
      say exactly when, emphasizing that the hunt for Mr.
      bin Laden never stopped, though clearly the effort
      lost momentum.

      Much of the timing now is driven by the weather: as
      winter snows melt, troops can navigate in the high
      mountain passes and trails where many Qaeda and
      Taliban members are believed to be hiding. When that
      moment arrived last year, many of the forces and
      American intelligence operatives now engaged in
      Afghanistan were tied up in the Iraq.

      But presidential politics are also at play. Though the
      White House denies that Mr. Bush is letting the
      election influence strategy, some of his aides have
      privately spoken about the obvious advantages of going
      into the last months of the election campaign with
      both Mr. Hussein and Mr. bin Laden in custody.

      On Friday, Senator John Kerry, the Massachusetts
      Democrat and the front-runner in the Democratic race,
      appeared to try to inoculate his campaign from the
      possibility of Mr. bin Laden's capture, while at the
      same time faulting Mr. Bush for failing to put
      together an effective search strategy far earlier.

      "As we speak, night has settled on the mountains of
      the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan," Mr.
      Kerry said in California. "If Osama bin Laden is
      sleeping, it is the restless slumber of someone who
      knows his days are numbered. I don't know if the
      latest reports � saying that he is surrounded � are
      true or not. We've heard this news before."

      Mr. Kerry said, "We had him in our grasp more than two
      years ago at Tora Bora, but George Bush held U.S.
      forces back and instead called on Afghan warlords with
      no loyalty to our cause to finish the job."

      Kerry aides contended that Mr. Bush's new strategy was
      a tacit admission of past failures and said the White
      House had criticized Mr. Kerry for questioning its
      earlier strategy.

      White House and military officials insist that despite
      the rumors to which Mr. Kerry alluded, they do not
      know Mr. bin Laden's whereabouts. Pentagon officials
      on Saturday denied a report on Iranian state radio
      that Mr. bin Laden had been captured in the region
      long ago.

      Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, speaking to
      reporters on Thursday, sounded testy when asked about
      the chances of finding Mr. bin Laden, saying it "will
      happen when it happens, and I don't believe it's
      closer or farther at any given moment."

      But at the White House and at the Pentagon, there is
      talk of better intelligence � some of it supplied by
      captured Qaeda lieutenants � and a new sense of

      Much of it centers on Task Force 121, which was
      created last fall to hunt what the military calls
      "high-value targets" in Iraq and Afghanistan. A senior
      military official in Washington with access to
      classified troop movements said "small numbers" of the
      commandos had recently moved to Afghanistan to bolster
      the Special Operations efforts there, a development
      first reported this week by The Washington Times.

      Military officials say there are also increasing
      intelligence reports on Mr. bin Laden's movements in
      the border region, where he has a large network of
      Taliban sympathizers. Many of those new reports are a
      result of heightened activity by Pakistani security
      forces along its border with Afghanistan. Pakistani
      troops have pressured tribal leaders to hand over
      villagers suspected of harboring Qaeda members.

      "The volume of intelligence is increasing as we get
      more forces out there," said a senior Pentagon
      official who follows Afghan developments closely.
      "Right now, it's more a qualitative difference in
      intelligence than a quantitative difference, but it's

      The critical question, however, is how committed
      General Musharraf is to the task. Since the fall of
      the Taliban in 2001, Afghan and American military
      officials have complained that he has been reluctant
      to track down Qaeda and Taliban militants along the

      But in recent weeks, American commanders say that has
      sharply changed. The assassination attempts, officials
      say, made it clear to General Musharraf that he had to
      crush Mr. bin Laden's support group, even if they
      retained a strong constituency in Pakistan and in the
      Pakistani intelligence services.

      Moreover, Mr. Bush's willingness to look the other way
      as General Musharraf pardoned A. Q. Khan, the
      Pakistani nuclear scientist who shipped his technology
      to Iran, Libya and North Korea, was part of a
      concerted effort to demonstrate, in the words of one
      American official, "that we're going to let him do
      what he needs to do to stay in control."

      In the wake of Mr. Tenet's visit, Pakistan is now
      preparing for a major spring offensive against Al
      Qaeda in the border region. Lt. Gen. David W. Barno,
      the commander of American forces in Afghanistan, said
      earlier this month that American and Pakistani forces
      would work together in a "hammer and anvil" approach
      to drive militants in each other's direction and
      destroy them.

      But the White House is trying to tamp down
      expectations. Officials there cringed when Lt. Col.
      Brian Hilferty, the senior spokesman for American
      forces in Afghanistan, said on Jan. 29 that, "We have
      a variety of intelligence, and we're sure we're going
      to catch Osama bin Laden and Mullah Omar this year."

      Three days earlier, General Barno 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."

      Pentagon officials have sought to play down the
      remarks, chalking them up to exuberant commanders.

      Even so, there is a heightened sense of anticipation
      that the Qaeda leader may soon be caught.

      "With this guy holed up, the more time that goes by,
      the more likely it is he'll make a mistake," said the
      senior Pentagon official who follows Afghanistan

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