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RESPONSE TO TERROR

U.S. Seeks Custody of Taliban Leader

Afghanistan: Omar is reported to be in a west-central region and negotiating a surrender.

January 03, 2002|JOHN HENDREN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — With intelligence reports zeroing in on Mullah Mohammed Omar's suspected location and suggesting that he may be negotiating a surrender, Pentagon officials warned Afghan allies Wednesday that they expect any deal to put the Taliban leader in U.S. hands.

As a Pentagon official declared Osama bin Laden's trail cold in the snowcapped mountains of Tora Bora in eastern Afghanistan, U.S. forces and Afghan allies focused on reports that America's second-most-wanted man is entrenched with Taliban forces in the mountains around Baghran in west-central Afghanistan.

Rear Adm. John D. Stufflebeem, deputy director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said U.S. special operations soldiers are "on the hunt" for Omar and his Taliban holdouts, and Afghan commander Jamal Khan said Afghan military leaders have been negotiating with people loyal to Omar for two days.

Still chafing from a previous surrender of Taliban troops that allowed Omar to escape his southern stronghold of Kandahar, Pentagon officials have pressured Afghan leaders not to let that happen again.

"It has been made very clear that we expect to have control of him," Pentagon spokeswoman Victoria Clarke said of Omar. "From what we have seen from reports from the interim government, from anti-Taliban forces, they understand and have said, 'We understand that if we come [into] control of Omar, he will be turned over to the United States.' "

U.S. and Afghan anti-Taliban interests have diverged more than once, creating a yawning gap in trust. In Kandahar in early December, local commanders who were mostly interested in controlling the city had said they had crafted a deal that would put Omar in their custody. Instead, he and hundreds, if not thousands, of pro-Taliban fighters melted into the countryside.

Some Pentagon officials think that ethnic Pushtuns agreed to look the other way while fellow Pushtuns escaped. In Tora Bora, U.S. officials have had trouble persuading Afghan allies to continue searching caves vacated by members of Bin Laden's Al Qaeda terrorist network.

The consistency of reports on Omar's whereabouts contrasted sharply with waning confidence in intelligence on the location of Bin Laden, whom the U.S. blames for the Sept. 11 attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center.

"I don't think he's up there" in Tora Bora, Col. John Mulholland, the commander of the Joint Special Operations Task Force, told reporters Wednesday at a Special Forces base near Afghanistan. "I do think he's either dead, buried under some tonnage of rock or he's out of there."

Reporters agreed not to disclose the base's exact location because the host nation's leaders want to keep their war contribution secret.

Omar is an easier target to track, defense officials said. The fugitive Taliban leader has reportedly never traveled beyond Pakistan and is believed to have strong ties only to tribal leaders in that country. The comparatively cosmopolitan Bin Laden, son of a Saudi construction magnate, has spent time in Yemen and Sudan and traveled considerably.

"Omar is a homeboy," said retired Lt. Col. Ralph Peters, a former Army intelligence official. "He's not going to fit in much anywhere else. He's going to be tied in with specific tribal networks. He can't simply pop up in Yemen and blend in, whereas Osama bin Laden has been a globe-trotter for quite a while."

Reports consistently put Omar in the mountains of Helmand province, but Stufflebeem said that "there is not a preponderance of reports that would allow us to pinpoint a location" within that region. Stufflebeem said he doubts reports that Bin Laden had joined Omar.

The differing reports on the whereabouts of the two men stem from having a variety of human sources, varied analyses of their reports and spotty U.S. intelligence, defense officials said.

"People talk about the fog of war. There's a fog of peace as well--or the not war/not peace we have now in Afghanistan," Peters said. "There's a great deal of honest confusion."

In the end, he added, "no matter how good your systems, how good your skills, what usually brings an individual down is a lucky break--a bit of information or an informant."

Although the top leaders have eluded anti-Taliban forces, an airstrike last week reportedly succeeded in killing the Taliban's intelligence chief, Qari Ahmadulla. The BBC Pashto-language radio service reported Wednesday that Ahmadulla, his brother and two colleagues were killed in one of two U.S. airstrikes Dec. 26 and Friday, citing accounts from Afghans fleeing the country for Pakistan.

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