The top commander in Afghanistan is still on the hunt for Osama bin Laden and would take him alive if possible. But Gen. Stanley McChrystal, speaking with reporters by videoconference at the Pentagon Wednesday, appeared to contradict what the Obama administration’s top lawyer said Tuesday.
Attorney General Eric Holder told a congressional panel Tuesday that he thought the chances that Mr. bin Laden would be captured were “infinitesimal” because it is far more likely he would be killed by an airstrike or taken by his own people. But asked about capturing or killing the spiritual leader of Al Qaeda and the individual behind the attacks of 9/11 Wednesday, Mr. McChrystal said there was no doubt the military would try to capture bin Laden and had not given up on capturing him alive.
“Wow. No, if Osama bin Laden comes inside Afghanistan, we would certainly go after trying to capture him alive and bring him to justice,” McChrystal said. “I think that is something that is understood by everyone.”
The two statements appeared at odds with one another, but it is unclear to what extent fundamental differences existed between the two men. Mr. Holder was speaking about the likelihood of capturing bin Laden and how justice might be meted out for him. If bin Laden were captured, it would force the Obama administration to decide what legal rights he would have and where he would be tried – in military or civilian court.
Holder indicated that there wasn’t a very good chance that coalition forces would have the opportunity to arrest bin Laden, who has not been heard from in months but remains the face of the Al Qaeda movement against the US.
McChrystal was speaking as the military commander who would be responsible for killing or capturing bin Laden inside Afghanistan.
He oversaw the operation in which Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the top Al Qaeda leader in Iraq, was killed in 2006. Bin Laden is thought to be hiding in Pakistan's mountainous region along its border with Afghanistan.
Most of Al Qaeda's day to day operations are thought to be overseen by Ayman al-Zawahri, an Egyptian doctor who is also thought to be hiding in that region.
American officials have downplayed the significance of killing or capturing bin Laden ever since President Bush said he was wanted “dead or alive” in the early days after the attacks of 9/11. Removing him from the battlefield would not necessarily have any tangible effect on terrorist plots against the US and its interests, since Al Qaeda likely does not rely on bin Laden to conduct its operations. Still, American officials recognize capturing or killing bin Laden would deal an enormous strategic blow to the group's operations.
He said the Kandahar operations may appear slower and more deliberate than the one in Helmand’s Marjah district. By this fall about 100,000 US forces will be deployed inside in Afghanistan.