Bin Laden probably alive, U.S. general admits

Friday, December 19, 2003

BAGRAM, Afghanistan -- Osama bin Laden will "with absolute certainty" be caught if he's still alive, the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff said on Thursday, as the U.S. military acknowledged for the first time that a Taliban commander -- targeted in an assault that mistakenly killed nine children -- got away. Gen. Richard Myers, on a one-day tour to boost troop morale along with comedian Robin Williams and other entertainers, said the al-Qaida mastermind was likely hiding in the border region between Pakistan and Afghanistan.

"It's very difficult to find individuals. What will happen is, with absolute certainty ... he will be captured some day, just like we captured Saddam Hussein," Myers said at Bagram Air Base, the U.S. military headquarters in Afghanistan.

He said bin Laden likely was hiding in the rugged mountains between Pakistan and Afghanistan "Where he has some support, where he can buy support, and probably in very difficult terrain."

Since Dec. 2 the U.S. military has been engaged in a large-scale sweep, dubbed Operation Avalanche, targeting the south and east of the country. The operation, which involves 2,000 troops and has been billed as the largest since the war ended, was designed in part to put the Taliban on the defensive ahead of the historic constitutional council that began Sunday in the capital.

The operation has been overshadowed by the deaths of 15 children in two attacks earlier this month, including a Dec. 6 raid in which an A-10 warplane was called in to bomb a field in a village in Ghazni province. An adult and nine small children who were playing there. were killed.

Lt. Gen. David W. Barno, the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, said Thursday that the intended target of the attack, a Taliban district commander named Mullah Wazir, appears to have gotten away.

The "indications are that Mullah Wazir was not killed," Barno told reporters after Myers spoke. Villagers have been saying since the attack that Wazir had left the area days before, but Barno's comment was the first admission by the military to that effect.

Barno added that the military was reviewing how it coordinates such attacks between ground and air forces in an effort to avoid such tragedies in the future.

Myers said Afghanistan has made great progress in the two years since U.S. bombing ousted the Taliban regime in late 2001, noting the constitutional council, or loya jirga, underway in Kabul, and the inauguration on Tuesday of the Kabul-Kandahar highway, rebuilt largely with U.S. funds.

"We have basically a pretty stable country," Myers said, though he added: "It doesn't mean tomorrow we won't have a car bomb attack, but the security situation has dramatically improved."

Myers said there was no longer a large-scale Taliban resistant, and that the group had broken up into groups of "ones and twos."

Attacks by Taliban insurgents have been on the rise in recent months. At least 11 aid workers have been killed since March, and the rebels have also started kidnapping foreigners in an apparent bid to negotiate the release of jailed comrades.

On Thursday suspected insurgents set fire to a boys' school in the southern province of Kandahar, killing the school guard, said Salim Khan, deputy police chief for Kandahar.

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