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RESPONSE TO TERROR

U.S. Hits Base as Al Qaeda Rebuilds

Afghanistan: Aircraft pound a camp where Bin Laden's network was regrouping, the Pentagon says. Afghan forces close in on suspected site of the Taliban's spiritual leader.

January 04, 2002|ESTHER SCHRADER and ALISSA J. RUBIN | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

WASHINGTON — U.S. warplanes Thursday struck a military compound in eastern Afghanistan where members of Osama bin Laden's terrorist network were regrouping, the Pentagon said. The attack was the latest in a series of calibrated strikes designed to pound Taliban and Al Qaeda leaders so they cannot regain power.

Thursday's strike was the third since Dec. 20 in a campaign to destroy sites where intelligence analysts believe that elite elements of the ousted regime and the terrorists it sheltered are seeking to consolidate and regroup. The attacks draw a stark picture of the dogged U.S. military pursuit of what Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld on Thursday called the top "10, 12, 15, 20" Taliban and Al Qaeda leaders.

Mindful of other recent conflicts--notably the 1991 Persian Gulf War with Iraq--in which the U.S. pulled its troops out quickly, leaving remnants of a militarily defeated force to rebuild its power base, Rumsfeld said Thursday that the Bush administration has no intention of following suit in Afghanistan.

In his first appearance before reporters in the new year, Rumsfeld repeatedly stressed the effectiveness of the U.S. military campaign against Al Qaeda, even while acknowledging that the Pentagon had yet to accomplish President Bush's stated goal of bringing its leaders to justice.

"We do want to capture Osama bin Laden and [Mullah Mohammed] Omar and the Al Qaeda and Taliban leadership. We're working on it. But even if we were to capture them tomorrow, our job would still be far from over," Rumsfeld said.

"The network is well organized. It's global. We continue to get additional intelligence information which reinforces our conviction as to the breadth and depth of that terrorist network. So we do have a good distance to go," he said.

This morning in Kabul, the Afghan capital, Abdullah Jan, an official in the Ministry of the Interior, offered some information on the search for Omar.

Government troops are in Baghran, in northern Helmand province, an extremely mountainous area to which Omar is believed to have escaped, Jan said. He said there is at least an 80% chance that the Taliban leader is in that area, which is now mostly encircled by government troops.

Omar is being protected by a Taliban commander, Abdul Wahed Baghrani, who has about 1,000 armed Afghan Taliban with him, Jan said. It is unclear how many foreign Taliban may also be there.

In his news conference, Rumsfeld denied that the failure to capture Bin Laden is a sign of ineffectiveness in the global war on terrorism sparked by the Sept. 11 terror attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon.

"One has to appreciate the difficulty of tracking down a single human being anywhere," Rumsfeld said. ". . . Obviously, our goal is to find them, and we intend to keep pursuing that. But our real goal is to see that people are not committing terrorist acts."

A Complicated Endgame

The persistent but low-level military operations by U.S. forces underscored the messy, difficult endgame in Afghanistan, where thousands of Taliban and Al Qaeda militants are presumed to have melted back into society, and where the remaining elements of the two groups who have survived the U.S. campaign appear to be making attempts to reassemble wherever and however they can.

"The problem is, the Taliban leadership wasn't smashed. It escaped. It didn't stay there and fight," said Anthony Cordesman, a former Defense Department intelligence officer and now senior foreign affairs analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

"You want to get those last elements, but you are talking about just dozens of people and very small targets--targets the size of a high school.

"It requires a really exhausting, difficult, low but steady level of operations. But these leaders still out there are charismatic figures, ones whose ability to create future problems could be very great. We can't afford to falter or stop," he said.

In a related development, the Washington Times reported Thursday that, according to U.S. intelligence officials, American and allied military forces were increasing aerial reconnaissance flights over Somalia, possibly in preparation for raids against Al Qaeda bases there.

Asked about the possibility of attacks against Somalia or Yemen, Rumsfeld replied, "It doesn't do any good at all for me to be speculating about different countries and what we might do next, because I think they'll draw questions for the future." He refused further comment.

Al Qaeda Site Attacked

Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that B-1 bombers, AC-130 gunships and F/A-18 attack jets unleashed airstrikes Thursday on an Al Qaeda leadership compound in the Khowst region of Afghanistan near the border with Pakistan.

The compound, built atop the ruins of one hit by U.S. cruise missiles in 1998 in retaliation for attacks on two U.S. embassies in East Africa and bombed again last fall, "has been a place where Al Qaeda goes to regroup," Myers said.

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