Tide of war lifts hopes of netting bin Laden

As Taliban troops switch sides, Pentagon anticipates a wealth of new intelligence.

Defections from Taliban rule of military commanders and southern tribes promise to create an intelligence windfall for the United States as it pursues its top priority in Afghanistan: tracking down Osama bin Laden and other terrorist and Taliban chiefs.

As they switch sides, high-ranking Taliban commanders and southern tribal chiefs, as well as their rank-and-file followers, will offer new information on Taliban and Al Qaeda hideouts, as well as thousands of pairs of watchful eyes for detecting their movements, US officials say.

The Pentagon is hoping that such clues, in addition to the incentive of multimillion-dollar rewards, will improve the ability of US special forces teams now operating in both southern and northern Afghanistan to zero in on Mr. bin Laden, Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar, and others on America's "most wanted" list.

"Since the Taliban is collapsing, the ability of Al Qaeda to remain safe in Afghanistan is greatly reduced," said one US defense official. "There are rewards out for the capture. You've removed the fear and intimidation, so it's created an environment where it's unlikely that those organizations can survive very long," the official said on condition of anonymity.

Senior US defense officials stressed that pinpointing the location of Al Qaeda and Taliban leaders among Afghanistan's hundreds of caves, tunnels, and mountains remains a difficult challenge. The task is complicated, they suggest, by the possibility that bin Laden and others might flee across Afghanistan's border to Pakistan, Iran, or to nations such as Somalia or Sudan that have sheltered Al Qaeda in the past.

Indeed, US-led coalition forces are currently watching "possible escape routes" from Afghanistan, one defense official said.

Incentives for betrayal

Nevertheless, the Pentagon expressed a degree of optimism amid the defections and the severe weakening of the Taliban in recent days. "To the extent that there are more opponents of the Al Qaeda and Taliban in more parts of the country, one would think more information will ultimately become available," Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said on Tuesday.

US monetary rewards - including $5 million for information betraying bin Laden - are also likely to elicit tips on the leadership's location, he said. "It may very well be that money will talk at some point."

Perhaps the greatest threat to Taliban and Al Qaeda leaders - and the biggest intelligence gain for the United States - comes from growing indications that tribal chiefs of the dominant Pashtun ethnic group will reject Taliban rule in southern Afghanistan, where their support has formed the backbone of Taliban power.

US-backed tribal leader Hamid Karzai has reported from southern Afghanistan that Pashtun tribal chiefs are organizing a new Pashtun leadership in defiance of Taliban rule, according to a source close to Mr. Karzai's brother in Pakistan.

The new leadership will support the former Afghan king, Mohammad Zahir Shah.

Karzai has also reported that anti-Taliban tribes have already gained control of the airport outside the Taliban stronghold of Khandahar, according to Reuters.

"There are indications that the southern tribes are reconsidering their relations with the Taliban," a US defense official said.

If tribal leaders regain control of southern localities, they will be able to reestablish the traditional intelligence networks that could prove valuable to American forces in locating Al Qaeda and Taliban leaders, says Ali Jalali, a military analyst and former Afghan colonel.

"Every village and every mosque is a unit, a center of intelligence," he says. "Whatever happens around the village, the villager will report to the leadership - so it is not easy to hide in an environment like that."

As the US military continues to bomb likely Al Qaeda and Taliban hideouts, including tunnels and caves, teams of a few dozen US Special Operations Forces in the south are positioned to gather intelligence and direct strikes at leadership targets.

High-ranking Taliban sources

US forces are seeking to interview several high-ranking Taliban military commanders, of the rank of general and higher, who defected along with their rank-and-file troops rather than fight the Northern Alliance rebel forces who swept through northern Afghanistan in recent days, US officials say.

US forces in Kabul are also searching for computer disks, maps, and other documents the Taliban left behind during a pell-mell retreat southward, according to wire reports.

The growing freedom of US forces to operate inside Afghanistan - either from bases within the country or from bases located in nearby nations - will reduce the reaction time needed to launch strikes on Taliban and Al Qaeda leaders, US officials say.

Such speed is vital, military experts agree.

"The Al Qaeda is moving from place to place," says Mr. Jalali. "You have to be ready to go very fast when you get the information. Otherwise, you will be chasing them from valley to valley."

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