WASHINGTON -- The defeat of the Taliban and sudden success against Osama bin Laden's forces means the U.S.-led military campaign in Afghanistan is narrowing its focus to two final targets: bin Laden and his top deputies, and Mullah Mohammed Omar, the terrorists' Taliban sponsor.
In the coming days, U.S. Marines and other troops hope to detain large numbers of Taliban officials and members of bin Laden's al-Qaida network -- mainly to pump them for information about the primary prey.
Weeks of U.S. bombing helped Afghan opposition forces rout the Taliban militia, and the same combination appears to be flushing al-Qaida fighters from their fortified cave complexes in the Tora Bora area. But it's not yet clear that the ultimate prizes -- bin Laden and Omar -- are within reach.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld sought to lower expectations.
"There's no question but that some of the terrorists are on the run, and there also are pockets of terrorists and Taliban that are being attacked as we speak," he said Tuesday. "But we all know that a wounded animal can be dangerous, and so, too, the Taliban and al-Qaida can hide in the mountains."
Could take time
Rumsfeld's top deputy, Paul Wolfowitz, said Monday the final hunt could last months.
Pentagon officials see new opportunity arising from the recent success against al-Qaida forces around Tora Bora and Malawa, where a network of caves and bunkers served as their final stronghold. Relentless U.S. bombing set the stage for Afghan fighters to overrun the cave hide-outs Tuesday.
As U.S. and Afghan forces move into areas once occupied by the Taliban or al-Qaida, they are collecting valuable information. Some of it may sharpen the otherwise fuzzy picture of where Omar and bin Laden may be hiding.
"There's documentation being found and discovered and analyzed and translated, so that each day we learn more and know more," Rumsfeld said. "As more address books are found and phone books are found and computer hard drives are found as people have left areas, clearly our knowledge base is going up."