Bagram, April 11 (Reuters): The commander of US forces in the Gulf took time out from the Iraq war today to visit his other front in Afghanistan, where he said everything was under control in spite of recent attacks blamed on Taliban remnants.
Gen. Tommy Franks told a news briefing after reviewing troops at the US headquarters at Bagram north of Kabul he suspected coalition forces were getting closer to finding al Qaida leader Osama bin Laden.
He said Saddam Hussein and other Iraqi leaders were “either dead or running like hell”.
He told some of the 11,500 coalition soldiers pursuing bin Laden and his allies in the former Taliban regime they had made a huge difference since they came in late 2001 and “routed terrorism” in Afghanistan. “A hell of a lot has changed,” he said. “It remains a dangerous place... But those people who believe Afghanistan is a dangerous place should have seen the look on the faces of the Afghan people a year-and-a-half ago.
“Now you can go to any place you want to in this country and you will find people in shops, selling vegetables, running businesses, attending school, people getting medical care.” Franks rejected the notion Washington may have let things slide in Afghanistan to pursue the war in Iraq.
and said coalition forces were stronger than they had been two months ago.
”I think the commitment remains to the growth of Afghanistan as a free state...not only in my country,but the countries of the coalition.”
Franks played down recent activity blamed on Taliban remnants, which has included the killing of two U.S. soldiers and a worker from the International Committee of the Red Cross.
He said he had not seen any significant upsurge in activity in spite of the onset of better spring fighting weather and local Afghan commanders have dealt with efforts of anti-coalition forces to gather in larger groups of up to 100.
”I can tell you that from the perception of (coalition troops) and the Afghan National Army, it's in hand, it will continue to be in hand,” he said.
Franks said he suspected U.S. forces were getting closer to both bin Laden and the Iraqi leadership.“...one never knows, one day we will wake up and (they) will just be there”.
He said the U.S. forces had learned a huge amount in Afghanistan that applied to Iraq, not least the need to combine humanitarian assistance with precision targeting.
He made no mention of friendly fire deaths in Iraq or the accidental killing of 11 Afghan civilians earlier this week by a stray U.S. bomb during an operation in the southeast.