December 26, 2001

U.S. Prods Afghan Allies to Resume Tora Bora Hunt

By Jim Wolf

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. forces are prodding sometimes reluctant anti-Taliban Afghan allies to join in scouring Osama bin Laden's last major redoubt for possible al Qaeda hold-outs, including bin Laden himself, a senior U.S. defense official said Wednesday.

Anti-Taliban forces have been reluctant to return to Tora Bora in large numbers, saying their work was done after hundreds of bin Laden's al Qaeda fighters were routed from there this month, the official said.

Bin Laden, the Saudi-born militant whom Washington blames for the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States, has become the main unfinished business in Afghanistan of the U.S.-led campaign that began with airstrikes on Oct. 7.

"We're always looking for bin Laden," said the official, who asked not to be named. He said U.S. forces were prepared to resume sweeps in the area -- in the White Mountains, 30 miles (50 km) south of Jalalabad -- with anti-Taliban squads to check for any al Qaeda survivors of fierce U.S. airstrikes.

Late last week about 500 Marines were put on stand-by in Afghanistan to help search the Tora Bora caves, but none had been deployed yet, the official said.

Army Col. Rick Thomas, a spokesman for the U.S. Central Command, which is running the U.S. campaign, said using the Marines was still an option under consideration.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld told reporters Friday that "whatever (force that) is needed will be sent" to hunt for clues that may help locate bin Laden and his top lieutenants, or their bodies if they were killed.


Monday, a defense official told Reuters that "operations are imminent" in the Tora Bora area. Tuesday, Central Command said plans were still in hand for a thrust into the caves.

Wednesday, the senior defense official said the timing of the operation was up to Army Gen. Tommy Franks, who heads the Tampa, Florida-based Central Command.

It appeared to hinge on enlisting anti-Taliban allies, who were coached in the initial assault by elite U.S. Special Operations forces, and the defense official said the United States had been working on persuading them to go back.

Another option may be to use experimental "thermobaric" bombs to blast the air out of Tora Bora's underground mountain warrens, killing anyone still holed up inside.

For the past week, U.S. warplanes typically had been returning from their sorties with as much as 85 percent to 100 percent of their bombs unused because of a lack of targets, the official said. No airstrikes occurred Monday or Tuesday.

But he said pockets of al Qaeda resistance -- which he guessed may number fewer than six throughout Afghanistan -- remained an issue. He said the U.S. ability to root out the holdouts was constrained by fears of hurting civilians.

"In some of the southern parts of Afghanistan, in Paktia province, we believe there are still pockets of al Qaeda," Afghan Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah said Wednesday.

He said several active pockets were operating around southern Kandahar, birthplace of the Taliban and their final stronghold until they surrendered on Dec. 7.

Eight wounded Arab al Qaeda fighters armed with guns and grenades remain barricaded in a Kandahar hospital after a failed attempt by U.S.-backed forces to flush them out.

The Defense Department canceled its regularly scheduled briefing Wednesday on the campaign in Afghanistan and other topics because "there's no news," said Navy Captain Tim Taylor, head of the defense information office at the Pentagon. The last briefing was five days ago.

Likewise, an anticipated early-morning on-the-record session with Victoria Clarke, the Pentagon's chief spokeswoman, was also scratched Wednesday, drawing criticism from advocates of more open government.

"The public doesn't need to know many of the details that are operationally sensitive," said Steven Aftergood, director of the project on government secrecy at the private Federation of American Scientists. "But the public urgently needs to know about the daily conduct of the war because so much is at stake, including the effectiveness of our forces and our security here at home."


Copyright 2001 Reuters