Bin Laden proves master of elusion

US planes blasted Al Qaeda positions, as Pentagon officials said they still believe bin Laden is there.

TORA BORA, AFGHANISTAN

Osama bin Laden's apparent ability to give the slip to Western military might and all its intelligence has become something of a legend in the White Mountains of Afghanistan.

"Osama is a like a butterfly resting on a flower, and America is like a child chasing it with a cricket bat," says Shams Khan, a young Afghan commander assigned to try to capture Tora Bora.

Tracing the steps of Mr. bin Laden - the most wanted terrorist in the world - throughout the month of Ramadan has kept much of the world on edge. Information has been sparse. Even unconfirmed sightings of the most wanted man in the world often come days, if not weeks late.

Most of the "sightings," however, have come from Afghan fighters or villagers, who claim to have seen people moving on the horizon. These reports have often been embellished with talk of bin Laden riding in flowing robes through the nearest snowdrift.

But what has become clear is that over the past four weeks, bin Laden has moved from one place to another almost at will. His ability to stay on the move, has, so far, made the US government's heavy bombing campaign inside the Al Qaeda caves at Tora Bora look futile.

"He left Tora Bora on two occasions, and on the last time, he never returned," Abu Jaffar, an Al Qaeda operative and Saudi financier told Luftfallah Mashal, an Afghan reporter working for the Monitor. "We all believe he arrived safely in Pakistan."

The American strategy to corner and capture bin Laden hasn't yet produced any results. Many Afghans, even the fighters on the ground who are working in tandem with the US airstrikes, have begun to say. "If you want Osama, come and get him yourself."

"It is a really fluid situation," a Pentagon official in Washington says. "And until we have him, we don't have him."

"We have lots of pieces of information coming in that we have to evaluate," the official says. "But at this point we think he is still in Afghanistan."

But he allows: "We just don't know for sure whether he's decided to stand with his fighters."

The latest and, possibly, final departure of bin Laden from the Tora Bora enclave came several days before the arrival of US Special Forces, who are now directing the air war against Al Qaeda. But there had been several apparent chances to catch, or kill, bin Laden before the arrival of the US forces.

Two days before the fall of the Taliban in Jalalabad, bin Laden was sighted by two former Al Qaeda employees in a crowd of several hundred Arabs.

Mujahid Ullah, the son of the aging power-broker, who greeted bin Laden in 1996 when his private jet arrived here, negotiated with the Arabs to prevent a bloodbath in the city. The Al Qaeda chief was seen by two Jalalabad residents at close range as he was holding hands with the departing governor of Jalalabad, Mauli Abdul Kabir.

According to other sources at the meeting, the Arabs were promised "safe passage" to the Tora Bora mountain enclave in exchange for not staying and fighting in Jalalabad. Several Afghan leaders, who now have prominent posts in the new government, helped the Arabs in their escape even as US bombs rained down in the city.

The promise of "safe passage," has, according to other Al Qaeda sources, given birth to an "underground railway" that has moved Arabs and bin Laden loyalists out of Tora Bora through Afghan villages to the north, east, and west of the mountain redoubt.

The assistance has come with a price. The Afghan villagers, who have dared to help the Arabs escape, have often been the target of massive US airstrikes, which two weeks ago looked more like "carpet bombing," than specifically targeted strikes with "smart bombs."

Meanwhile, Afghan fighters have scrambled up into the hills by day and back down by night, conquering little territory in the remote White Mountains.

If bin Laden is now somewhere in the general area of eastern Afghanistan - or just across the border in Pakistan - as seems likely, he is likely plotting more mischief.

"Al Qaeda has roads, safe passage, and bin Laden has plenty of friends," says Commander Awol Gul, an Afghan military commander, who, until recently, swore his allegiance to The Taliban.

Privately, many of the Afghan commanders, who have been given the task of capturing the elusive bin Laden are now critical of the US strategy.

While the two most senior warlords in eastern Afghanistan were saying last week that they believed, with little doubt, that the Al Qaeda chief was in the White Mountains, both are now hedging their claims. "There is a growing sense that the bird has flown the coop and that killing hundreds of die-hard Arab and Chechen jihad fighters may not be in the Afghan interest," says a retired Afghan politician, Lal Gul.

Abraham McLaughlin contributed to this report from Washington.

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