Mon, Apr 12, 2004 - Page 5 News List

Bin Laden deals blow to US hubris

AP , KABUL

The US military has pulled back from an earlier prediction that Osama bin Laden would be captured this year, even while preparing its largest force to date for operations along the Pakistani border where the al-Qaeda chief is suspected to be hiding.

Catching bin Laden and other top fugitives remains a priority of the expanding American operation in Afghanistan, but the growing mission is "not about just one or two people," a spokesman said Saturday.

"We remain committed to catching these guys. It's pretty much ... just about everything that we do here," Lieutenant-Colonel Matthew Beevers said.

But he declined to make any new predictions of when the fugitives might be behind bars.

Beevers insisted the military in Afghanistan was "still confident" of capturing its top targets, but added: "At the end of the day, it's not about just one or two people. It's about ... ensuring that there is stability and security throughout Afghanistan."

Buoyed by the capture of Saddam Hussein in Iraq, the top American commander in Afghanistan, Lieutenant-General David Barno, said in January he was confident bin Laden and Taliban supreme leader Mullah Omar would suffer the same fate this year.

At the time, a spokesman even said the military was "sure" it would catch the two men and Afghan rebel commander Gulbuddin Hekmatyar.

Those remarks, and talk of a spring offensive in Afghanistan by Washington defense officials, triggered speculation bin Laden had been located.

But now the military has followed Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's lead in appearing to lower expectations that a top fugitive would be unveiled during election campaigns in both the US and Afghanistan.

"Close doesn't count," Rumsfeld said as he stood alongside Afghan President Hamid Karzai during a February visit to Kabul. "I suspect that we'll find that it is accomplished at some point in the future, but I wouldn't have any idea when."

There have been no firm indications of bin Laden's whereabouts since he eluded American and Afghan troops at the battle for the Tora Bora cave complex in eastern Afghanistan in December 2001.

Last month, France's defense minister said French troops had recently helped identify an area in Afghanistan where bin Laden could have hidden, but he provided no specific details.

Barno has vowed to crush insurgents this year in a "hammer-and-anvil" approach with Pakistani forces on the other side of the border.

In a sign of Pakistan's new resolve to crack down on militants, thousands of its troops fought bloody battles with al-Qaeda suspects in the South Waziristan border region last month.

Shortly after the siege began March 16, President General Perez Musharraf claimed in a television interview that his men had cornered a "high-value" al-Qaeda target, and several senior Pakistani officials said they believed it to be bin Laden's No. 2 man, Ayman al-Zawahri.

Authorities later backed off those claims, saying instead they had wounded an Uzbek militant with al-Qaeda links named Tahir Yuldash. They say they believe Yuldash escaped, possibly through a tunnel leading out of the battle zone.

Last week, Pakistani forces promised to send thousands of soldiers into a cluster of remote hideouts in a fierce crackdown if tribesmen there do not hand over al-Qaeda terrorists by April 20.

The US military insists it will not cross into Pakistan to pursue rebels but has been building up its forces on the Afghan side of the border.

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