The good, bad, and unfinished

The US has shattered the Taliban. But bin Laden and Omar remain elusive.

The US bombers still leave their double-barrel smoke trails above the mule paths wending along the Afghan border with Pakistan. Occasionally, a pair of B-52s hover for a minute or so over a village and then unleash a mighty payload, whose blast rolls out in a thundering echo across the rocky valleys.

In the village of Zhawar, which was first hit by US cruise missiles in 1998, after the bombings of two US embassies in Africa, impoverished villagers shout into the skies in anger. Moments later, they scramble to gather scrap metal and unspent ammunition to sell to border traders.

Even though top US generals say they are not concerned by their often fruitless hunt for Osama bin Laden and Mullah Mohammed Omar, the war in Afghanistan can appear, on some days, like a Greek tragedy. The US military plays the role of a frustrated Zeus - its bombers hurling down bolts of lightning while the Afghan villagers, the embittered chorus line, shout back with angry diatribes.

Meanwhile, the real targets in the war on terror have become ever more elusive. And after three months of war in Afghanistan, there have been great successes, but also great failures.

In mid-December, Mr. bin Laden apparently slipped the noose at Tora Bora. At that time, the Pentagon, mimicking confident-sounding Afghan commanders, said that their chief suspect was "surrounded" in a cave complex there.

But a senior Al Qaeda operative told the Monitor on Dec. 12 how bin Laden had earlier traveled out of his favorite mountain redoubt with his right-hand man, Ayman Al Zawahiri, to Kandahar, before returning without him and leaving for the last time - riding out on horseback.

In a strikingly similar scenario with new actors, Afghan proxy fighters claimed in the first days of the new year that they had the Taliban's spiritual leader, Mullah Omar, hemmed in with a thousand fighters in his own mountain enclave. US Marines, in a mission that was first concealed and later made public, raced into the fray.

Then came reports this past weekend that the one-eyed cleric had somehow outwitted his would-be captors by fleeing over the dirt roads on a motorcycle.

Kandahar intelligence chief Haji Gullalai says that Omar was known to be travelling with "three companions."

But while the chief suspects seem to have slipped away - for now at least - the US has had some great success with unseating the Taliban regime.

While losing only a single soldier in combat, the US military has unseated the rogue regime that - until late last year - casually hosted the terror network likely responsible for the attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center.

A new "pro-Western" regime of mostly educated Afghans has given hope to the population of one of the world's most desperate nations. In Kabul, Afghan officials now speak respectfully of the world's most powerful nation, which has helped them unseat the once-popular Taliban militia.

Despite mounting criticism back home of US military strategy, some leading Western military analysts abroad credit the Americans with being appropriately sensitive to Muslim world concerns by not using more US forces - still only 1,500 - in Afghanistan to kill Al Qaeda members.

"To have used these proxies from the anti-Taliban alliance was and is the right thing to be doing," says Paul Beaver, a British military analyst. "If the US, particularly a Christian soldier, were to shoot bin Laden, this could well lead to a backlash from within the Muslim world where he still has support. If, on the other hand, an Afghan kills 'the invader,' this is going to have a much better ring to it. The ideal solution is for bin Laden to be found dead and to have been shot by an Afghan."

Still, the British defense specialist doesn't believe that bin Laden is in Afghanistan anymore. "He has demonstrated his craftiness with the attack on the World Trade Center," he adds. "I can't believe he would now just sit and wait in Afghanistan. I think he would have flown the coop - even to Saudi Arabia, where he still has friends and sympathizers."

The trail leading to bin Laden may have grown cold of late, yet, even in the heart of an Afghan winter, it has not entirely frozen over.

On the bin Laden trail

Investigators from Washington and London are now looking for specific people like chauffeurs who may have driven bin Laden or doctors who may have treated him. One US official said that such information "lets us create a timeline of where he was at certain times, learning his habits, which may aid in predicting where he may go in the future."

But one of the most vexing aspects in the hunt for Al Qaeda members over the past several months is the fact that the terror network's leaders have not simply escaped but have also, on some specific occasions, been given safe passage by sympathizers.

Tracking Mullah Omar

Abdullah Tawheedi, Afghanistan's chief of intelligence, acknowledged to the Monitor in Kabul over the weekend that "Mullah Omar is probably still in the Panjoie or Baghran regions. He can stay in these two places because that is where he's from. The people there belong to the same tribe, and they don't want the US to kill him."

Though the US government is working closely with Afghanistan's interim government on one side of the border and Pakistan's military-backed regime on the other side, the two South Asian governments have been quick to accuse one another of having given bin Laden all the help he needs.

"I know that Osama has given gifts in the past to ISI [Pakistan's intelligence services] and so now they are helping him out," says Mr. Tawheedi. "Osama decided to have some friends in Pakistan so that if he ran into problems, he'd be able to call on them for help."

Senior Western officials deny that Pakistan's regime, now considered a key partner in the war against terror, is helping the Al Qaeda chief.

"We have liaisons," said US Gen. Tommy Franks, who is leading the war on terror inside Afghanistan. "That is why we say that if he [bin Laden] crosses into Pakistan, we will get our hands on him."

But even when Washington does get its hands on senior or junior Al Qaeda operatives, there is no guarantee that the vast Al Qaeda network will implode. Some analysts believe that the publicity surrounding the hunt for bin Laden has actually increased the Saudi fugitive's following. Nor is there any assurance that Al Qaeda captives will cough up key information. Indeed, US interrogators have complained that they have only rarely obtained reliable information from prisoners they are questioning.

The most senior member of the Al Qaeda network to be captured in the three-month-old war - the head of several key training camps - was transferred for questioning to a US detention camp in Kandahar last week. The man identified as Ibn Al-Shaykh al-Libi, a Libyan national, was, reportedly, turned over to US officials by Pakistan.

Though US officials have already touted the catch as a possible boon for their intelligence-gathering efforts, senior Al Qaeda officials have proven even less willing than lower-level fighters to break the network's code of silence.

Getting back together?

Al Qaeda members who escape Afghanistan are expected to try to regroup outside the country in new safe areas in the coming months. Those who remain are likely to be dogged by joint US and Afghan attacks.

American jets bombed again yesterday around the same suspected targets in eastern Afghanistan that they hit late last week. In Zhawar, at one time a stronghold for Al Qaeda and the Taliban, Afghan residents said, in interviews over the weekend, that only two men were killed, both believed to be former Taliban fighters.

Along with the bombs, US jets were dropping leaflets showing a new, computer-generated picture of a beardless bin Laden with a mustache and dressed in smart Western clothes.

The leaflet claimed that Al Qaeda's "cowardly" leader had abandoned his minions - even though many US officials continue to speculate that bin Laden is still in Afghanistan.

Despite the fresh propaganda onslaught, the continuing US air war from 10,000 feet appears to be banking as much on invoking fear as it does on actually killing Al Qaeda members. "Keeping a Talib or an Arab [al-Qaeda member] is a big risk these days," says Haji Gul Gedai, a chief of the Ghilzi, a tribe whose members allegedly made deals for guns and money with Al Qaeda in November to guarantee network members safe passage into Pakistan. "I don't want my family to be killed for foreign fighters or Taliban."

Staff writer Ilene R. Prusher in Kabul, Afghanistan, and Mashal Lutfullah in Khost, Afghanistan, contributed to this report.

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