New U.S. Effort Steps Up Hunt for bin Laden
- New York Times
February 29, 2004
New U.S. Effort Steps Up Hunt for bin Laden
By DAVID E. SANGER and ERIC SCHMITT
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
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
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
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
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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