Why catching bin Laden is difficult

The US has launched a new effort in Afghanistan, yet still faces hurdles such as internal mistrust and false information.

Still flushed with their success in capturing Saddam Hussein, a joint CIA-military commando unit called Task Force 121 has been dispatched to Afghanistan with a new mission to get Osama bin Laden.

The elite unit is part of a growing host of intelligence resources joining the hunt along Afghanistan's border with Pakistan. The momemtum prompted US military officials here in January to predict confidently that America's most wanted man would be taken this year.

But interviews with top Afghan and US intelligence officials reveal a number of reasons the US has failed so far to catch Mr. bin Laden and his coterie of fighters. The difficulties, which cannot be easily overcome, are numerous:

• Few of America's local spies trust the US military or US intelligence agents, who by one account rotate in and out within three months.

• Most of America's human intelligence comes from local interpreters, many of whom have their own personal scores to settle, and have a history of giving false information.

• American technological advantages in satellite imagery and phone intercepts are almost useless in a country with few phones to monitor.

"Without human intelligence, this operation will be meaningless," says a senior Afghan intelligence officer, who requests anonymity. "Instead of catching Osama, the Americans will only create more opposition for themselves."

Most Afghans want the Americans to stay and rebuild the country, this Afghan intelligence officer adds, noting that Afghans regularly provide American intelligence agents and soldiers with tip-offs of Taliban movements. But individual American agents don't spend enough time in Afghanistan to know who is telling them the truth.

"American intelligence agencies change their staff every three months," he says. "How is it possible for a foreigner to come to Kandahar or Khost, to understand the society or the psychology, to know a man's tribal relations, his past behavior, his personal motives, whether he is honest or if he is telling a lie? It is not possible in three months."

Poor intelligence has led to mistakes.

In December 2001, a tip from the warlord, Badshah Khan Zadran, sent American AC-130 gunships and Navy fighters to attack a convoy of vehicles full of Afghan tribal elders on their way to show allegiance to the post-Taliban government; 65 civilians were reportedly killed.

In July 2002, at least 48 people were killed and 117 wounded when US warplanes attacked a wedding party in the town of Deh Rawud in central Afghanistan. The US military said a gunship had come under fire in the area.

More recently, on Dec. 6, 2003, US forces admitted mistakenly killing nine children when they bombed the home of a suspected Taliban commander near the town of Ghazni. The attack, prompted by "extensive intelligence" was precise, but the target left the location an hour before.

"I believe as long as you use local, infamous warlords, you'll always have problems," says Ali Ahmed Jalali, the Afghan interior minister, who maintains an extensive intelligence service. "Some of these warlords wanted to ensure mistakes were made, to keep the war going. There are cases where misinformation has been fed into the system."

Friends in low places

What the US and Afghan intelligence agencies need to start doing, an Afghan intelligence official says, is look for friends in lower places.

"There are rumors now that [bin Laden] is in Pakistan, in Wana, in Pakistani Kashmir, or in Nooristan near the Chinese border," says the Afghan intelligence officer. "What the intelligence people should do is go to these places and find farmers, or shepherds, or nomads, and build good relations with them," he says, rubbing fingers together in the symbol for money. "This is how you get information."

Information received from local sources, however, doesn't come in English. And the US's own interpreters - the crucial first filter for tipoffs - are often untrustworthy.

"Most of the interpreters and translators have links with Hizb-e Islami and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar," says Mr. Jalali, referring to a former US ally in the anti-Soviet insurgency who sided with the Taliban two years ago.

"Of all the intelligence that is given to the Americans by their colleagues, perhaps only 20 percent of it is correct," says Samiullah Qatra, commander of the Afghan border police. "And you might have realized that most of the problems in Afghanistan emanate from tribal rivalries and monetary gain."

US officials with ties to the intelligence community admit that the war in Afghanistan is a difficult game for the high-tech Western spy agencies.

"We're kind of losing there," says a senior US official in Washington, with knowledge of intelligence operations. "I just think it's very, very difficult to do anything with 10,000 troops in some of the world's highest mountains in a place the size of Texas."

But American politicians and the media need to get realistic about what the CIA and other American operatives can do in Afghanistan, this senior official adds. "People who talk about blaming the intelligence services for not getting assets in that area don't know what they're talking about - it's like sending a white-skinned guy to penetrate an Indian reservation."

Yet penetrating that tribal society, and finding out which tribe is harboring Taliban leaders - and Osama bin Laden - is the name of the game. For this, the US official says, US intelligence agents and special forces are hoping for a break.

"What do they think - that [bin Laden] will be sitting in a rocking chair inside a cave waiting for us to pull up?" says the official. "It will be pure serendipity if we get him. He'll zig; we'll zag and there we'll both be and we'll see who wins."

Such chance encounters have reportedly happened before. A French general said Monday that French troops working with US forces in Afghanistan have come close to capturing bin Laden. "On several occasions, I even think that he slipped out of a net that was well closed," Gen. Henri Bentegeat told France's Europe-1 radio.

But getting advance notice about Al Qaeda's movements is likely to be nearly impossible, suggests Mr. Qatra. "When I was a guerrilla against the Soviets, I would never visit home for more than two hours. If my family asked me which road I was taking, I would tell them the wrong direction. I did that to protect myself, because maybe the intelligence people would put pressure on my family."

"It's not only me that used these tactics, Mullah Omar and Osama bin Laden also fought during that time," Mr. Qatra adds. And it would be difficult to send a spy to infiltrate the inner ranks of either bin Laden or Mullah Omar. "They are surrounding themselves only with people who are 100 percent reliable. The people they don't trust will be kept far away."

Signs of progress

On a visit to Kabul Wednesday, US Secretary of State Colin Powell reiterated the US commitment to the fight and to rebuilding Afghanistan. "The United States is in this for the long haul. [Afghans] don't have to hope we will be here. We will be here," he said.

On the other side of the border, Pakistan has made gains against Al Qaeda and Taliban forces hiding in the tribal belt. An intense firefight Tuesday left at least 15 Pakistani paramilitary forces and 24 suspected Al Qaeda fugitives dead.

The US has made some strides in finding the enemy, according to Gen. Hilaluddin Hilal, Afghanistan's deputy minister of interior. The US is "getting better and better, and they have had big successes," including raids in Deh Chopan in Zabul Province, Maruf and Spin Boldak in Kandahar Province, Bahgran valley in Helmand Province, and a few operations in Paktia and Khost provinces. In these operations, US intelligence agents and Army Special Forces were able to detect Taliban commanders and take them out.

"In the beginning, they just wanted to act very fast, they didn't want to analyze the information first," says General Hilal. "Now they are thinking more profoundly, checking their information with many more sources."

If the US and its allies succeed in nabbing bin Laden, there's no guarantee the wider war on terror will be won. One former US intelligence officer with experience in Central Asia says the problem with the current war on terrorism is its concept of the enemy, Al Qaeda.

"We've somehow made this sound like a big company, run with a CEO and branch offices everywhere. Mostly these are national religious movements. And they do coordinate, they're like-minded, they agree on world views. But do they take orders?"

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