| Osama: Hunted
Washington, Feb. 29: President Bush has approved a plan to intensify the effort to capture or kill Osama bin Laden, senior administration and military officials say, as a combination of better intelligence, improving weather and a refocusing of resources away from Iraq has reinvigorated the hunt along the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan.
The plan will apply both new forces and new tactics to the task, said senior officials in Washington and Afghanistan who were interviewed in recent days. The group at the centre of the effort is Task Force 121, the covert commando team of Special Operations forces and Central Intelligence Agency officers.
The team was involved in Saddam Hussein’s capture and is gradually shifting its forces to Afghanistan to step up the search for bin Laden and Mullah Mohammed Omar, the former Taliban leader.
After a visit to Pakistan earlier this month by the director of central intelligence, George J. Tenet, American officials say, President Pervez Musharraf appears to be far more seriously committed to tracking down al-Qaida and Taliban militants.
“Two assassination attempts close together tends to be life-focusing,” said one senior official who is overseeing the new drive, referring to the December attacks on Musharraf. Bin Laden and his deputies have painted Musharraf as a lackey of the US, and many officials here believe that al-Qaida had a role in the assassination attempts.
Musharraf has told the US, the senior official said, that “he is now willing to be even more helpful” in tracking down al-Qaida and Taliban militants in the region where bin Laden is still believed to be hiding.
Under the new plan, officials say, the 11,000 American forces in Afghanistan are changing their tactics. Rather than carrying out raids and returning to their bases, small groups will now remain in Afghan villages for days at a time, handing out various forms of aid and conducting patrols.
By becoming a more permanent, familiar presence, American officials say, they hope to be able to receive and act on intelligence within hours. Such a technique helped them to capture Saddam. “We’re trying to transplant some of the lessons of the Saddam capture,” one senior official said. “This is different territory, and our targets are presumed to be moving around. But one lesson we learned in Iraq is that, by analogy, there are only a limited number of places that someone like Saddam or bin Laden feel comfortable.”
Similarly, Task Force 121 and the Pakistani forces are focusing on bin Laden’s support network, hoping it will crack as Saddam’s did. With a great deal at stake strategically, symbolically and politically, Bush and his national security team have repeatedly met in recent months to refine the new approach, and it appears to have been approved in the last two months.
White House officials will not say exactly when, emphasising that the hunt for bin Laden never stopped, though clearly the effort lost momentum.
Much of the timing now is driven by the weather: as winter snows melt, troops can navigate in the high mountain passes and trails where many al-Qaida and Taliban members are believed to be hiding. When that moment arrived last year, many of the forces and American intelligence operatives now engaged in Afghanistan were tied up in Iraq.
But presidential politics is also at play. Though the White House denies that Bush is letting the election influence strategy, some of his aides have privately spoken about the advantages of going into the last months of the election campaign with both Saddam and bin Laden in custody.
On Friday, senator John Kerry, the front-runner in the Democratic race, appeared to try to inoculate his campaign from the possibility of bin Laden’s capture, while at the same time faulting Bush for failing to put together an effective search strategy far earlier. Pentagon officials today denied a report on Iranian state radio that bin Laden had been captured in the region long ago.
Defence Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, speaking to reporters on Thursday, sounded testy when asked about the chances of finding bin Laden, saying: “It will happen when it happens, and I don’t believe it’s closer or farther at any given moment.”