Sun, Sep 03, 2006 - Page 4 News List

No real progress in hunt for bin Laden

WELL HIDDEN The leadership of al-Qaeda remains free despite more than 100,000 troops being posted at the Afghan-Pakistan frontier where they are believed to be


Latfullah Mashal, a former Afghan Interior Ministry spokesman, goes so far as to pinpoint bin Laden's hideout in a remote valley in Pakistan's North Waziristan region. He says there's a mountain fortress with a network of tunnels, guarded by African militants who never venture outside.

Pakistan, which formally ended its support for the Taliban after the Sept. 11 attacks, rejects both allegations. It has about 80,000 troops in its wild tribal regions along the Afghan frontier, including a US-trained and equipped quick-reaction force.

"I don't think any other country has played a bigger role than Pakistan," said Interior Minister Aftab Khan Sherpao.

Retired Lieutenant General Ali Mohammed Jan Aurakzai, who led the Pakistani army into the region after the Sept. 11 attacks, said sealing the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan would require between 150,000 and 200,000 troops "and still there's no 100 percent guarantee that infiltration would not take place."

Strained by the demands of Iraq, the US has only about 20,000 troops in Afghanistan. The roughly 10,000 in the border area must cover about 78,000km2 of some of the most forbidding territory on Earth: jagged mountains, both arid and forested, that become impassable in winter. There are steep valleys and rushing rivers spanned by rickety rope bridges; dark caves that could be booby-trapped. Deeply religious and xenophobic villagers also obstruct efforts to run down al-Qaeda remnants.

"Bin Laden has a network of contacts and places to go to if he needs to that's pretty close to 20 years old. He's a veteran of that region, so it's very hard to find him," said Michael Scheuer, who once headed the CIA unit that was dedicated to hunting the al-Qaeda leader. "Bin Laden's status as a hero in the Islamic world is also a telling factor in why he's not been caught."

A senior former Pakistani intelligence official put it more bluntly.

"These [ethnic] Pashtuns have their own traditions. They'll die but they'll not hand over bin Laden," said the official, who declined to be named because of the secretive subject matter.

For US troops, the Afghan mission is increasingly dangerous. At least 272 US service members have died in and around Afghanistan since October 2001, including three recently from Williams' unit. Some 44 US service personal died in Afghanistan in 2004, 92 last year and 61 so far this year.

Western, Afghan and Pakistani officials agree that the nearest they got to bin Laden was in the Tora Bora mountains, south of Kunar, in November 2001 when he was fleeing the US-backed war that toppled the Taliban regime.

The Pakistani intelligence official said Pakistan at first thought bin Laden was dead, perhaps killed by a bomb at Tora Bora, until a letter he penned to his family was recovered from Khalid Sheikh Mohammed when he was arrested in March 2003.

After that, repeated attempts have been made to get bin Laden and al-Zawahri:

* In late 2003, Pakistani forces raided Lattaka, a village in North Waziristan, to get bin Laden but he wasn't there.

* In 2004, amid a flurry of military action on both sides of the border, US Lieutenant General David Barno said he expected to bring bin Laden to justice within the year, although officials now say they had no hard intelligence to go on.

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