US needs to look beyond bin Laden capture

Experts say that, even if the current dragnet succeeds, Al Qaeda will remain potent - and have to be dealt with.

Even as the massive spring offensive gets under way along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border to get Osama bin Laden, Western intelligence officials are issuing a notable caveat:

If US forces do capture or kill the elusive Al Qaeda leader - and many expect they eventually will - Americans shouldn't take the bolts off cockpit doors or stop patrolling domestic harbors.

That's because a number of intelligence assessments indicate the war on terror would certainly go on - and, in fact, the world may be less safe in the short term.

To be sure, bin Laden's demise would be a morale boost for all countries targeted by the terror group - not to mention President Bush's reelection campaign. It would also be, at the least, a psychological blow to his followers and sympathizers across the Middle East, particularly if news of his capture or death appeared on Al Jazeera.

But the West would still confront a group committed to carrying out its war - one that has shown deftness at reconstituting itself. Moreover, bin Laden's removal could lead to retaliatory strikes.

"Capturing bin Laden ... may not stop Al Qaeda's ability to carry out attacks," warns one current US intelligence assessment, according to a government official who has seen the report. A British evaluation, provided by a European official, is even blunter: "Removing top level Al Qaeda leaders will not make a difference."

The devastating attacks on trains in Spain were a jolting reminder that, no matter what happens in the hunt for bin Laden in the mountainous moonscape of central Asia, terrorism is going to endure.

TOO many radical groups worldwide have latched onto Al Qaeda's tactics. Moreover, if bin Laden were killed, he would become a martyr, and there might be a spike in revenge hits against Americans. "In death he may be a more compelling figure than in life - an iconic leader inspiring imitation and succession," says Bruce Hoffman, a terror expert at the RAND Corp. "That doesn't mean the world will be worse off without him. It would be better off in the sense that we brought the archfiend of modern times to justice."

That is certainly what's behind part of the military buildup. But the dragnet is also broader in scope. The territory along the Afghan-Pakistani border, where bin Laden is suspected of taking refuge, is larger than Texas. Known as the Northwest Territories, it has become to bin Laden what Afghanistan was to him before the US invasion. It is a rugged, lawless expanse inhabited by tribes with allegiances to no government. There, bin Laden and his acolytes have been able to provide training and planning for continued terrorist hits.

"The real purpose of this operation from a military point of view is to remove the breeding ground for these activities, exactly as was done in Afghanistan, when we sent our forces there," says retired Gen. John Reppert, dean of the international school at the Marshall Center in Garmisch, Germany.

General Reppert says that the situation on the ground in both Afghanistan and Pakistan has changed to make this operation doable now. For one thing, Afghanistan has become much more stable. For another, Pakistan's relations with India have improved over the past year, alleviating the need for many of Islamabad's military assets to be deployed along its eastern border.

It can now refocus at least some of those forces in the Western frontier. Moreover, recent assassination attempts against Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf have provided an incentive for him to cooperate with the US in trying to subdue bin Laden and his lieutenants.

So far, Pakistan has moved some 70,000 troops into the territories. The US has shifted much of its 13,000 troops in Afghanistan to that side of the border. The Pakistani troops are building allegiances with tribal elders and persuading them - monetarily and militarily - to stop providing a haven for terrorists.

At the same time, it is expected that any Al Qaeda and Taliban remnants in the region will figure out what's happening and try to escape. The hope is that they would be driven across the border into the waiting arms of the US military.

"We'll destroy a lot of infrastructure and deprive [bin Laden] of capabilities he has previously enjoyed in that area," General Reppert says. "He and his senior lieutenants will have to look for some other sanctuary, and those kinds of places in this world are being drastically reduced."

Having bin Laden and his coterie of fighters on the run will make it more difficult for them to organize and operate. But the prime objective, of course, is to get bin Laden. And because the US said 2-1/2 years ago that it would get him dead or alive, it must follow through, experts say. That's why it is so important for the US to have a plan to deal with the after effects of his demise.

"The most important thing is to think about the repercussions, some predictable and some unpredictable," Hoffman says. "How will we portray this to the Muslim world? Are we going to have a sophisticated information campaign that deprives Al Qaeda of any propaganda activities?"

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