Afghanistan shows that U.S. doesn’t always get its man

K By Alissa J. Rubin and Maura Reynolds

kANDAHAR, Afghanistan – On a cold winter night nearly a year ago, the spiritual leader of the Taliban took one of two open roads leading out of this city, his movement’s last stronghold, and vanished into the desolate mountains of central Afghanistan.

There were U.S. warplanes in the air, a Marine base nearby and Afghan allies on the ground. But Mullah Mohammed Omar had an advantage: he knew the moonscape terrain from childhood.

Meanwhile, about 300 miles to the northeast, U.S. forces searching for Osama bin Laden along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border heard the last confirmed transmission from him. In the months since then, a series of massive military operations by U.S. forces has found no trace of either man. And each unsuccessful foray has increased the fugitives’ stature with their followers.

The disappearance of the two most-wanted men in Afghanistan is a potent reminder of the difficulty of hunting down enemy leaders. The apparent re-emergence of bin Laden in a taped message this week looms large as the United States prepares to go after one more “most wanted” figure: Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.

U.S. experts have concluded that the voice in the tape, urging new attacks on the United States and praising recent acts of terrorism elsewhere in the world, is almost certainly that of bin Laden.

Some experts say the United States errs when it focuses on individuals, who are vastly more elusive than the bridges, airfields and other fixed assets of a regime. Such figures can serve as a rallying point for protests, or an inspiration for further terrorists attacks. Each mission to capture them runs the risk of causing civilian casualties, which increase resentment of U.S. power.

“We put ourselves into a trap by demonizing these people and insisting on total victory, and we often don’t have the strategic means to get them,” said Donald Abenheim, an expert in military strategy and history at Stanford University’s Hoover Institute. “It makes the individual the center of gravity and we feed (a desire) to create an uprising against the West – and that remains the greatest threat to security.”

The pattern was apparent shortly after the Sept. 11 terror attacks, when President Bush declared he wanted bin Laden “dead or alive.”

Such pronouncements fit into a long history that includes Gen. John Pershing’s futile pursuit of Pancho Villa in the rugged mountains of northern Mexico, a missile attack on Libyan dictator Moammar Kadafi in the 1980s and the capture of Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega in 1990.

In Afghanistan, Omar’s knowledge of the landscape clearly helped him escape in a chaotic 24-hour period between Dec. 6 and 7, 2001, when the Taliban agreed to surrender Kandahar, its last stronghold.

Four roads lead out of Kandahar, only two of which were blocked by Afghan forces allied with the United States. On the city’s outskirts signs of habitation vanish quickly into a landscape of flat plains and barren hillsides that is at once deceptively simple and an utter mystery.

Either of the two roads open to Omar that night led into friendly terrain – areas he knew well enough to avoid confrontations with forces loyal to Hamid Karzai, who was fighting there at the time and has since become Afghanistan’s president.

One route traversed Zabol province, home to semi-nomadic herders, many of whom had backed the Taliban. The other led to Helmand province. Many Taliban leaders, including Omar, had homes and allies in Helmand and adjacent valleys in Oruzgan province.

Afghan officials acknowledge that the two factions friendly to the Americans closing in on Kandahar that night were unaware of each other’s activities. Neither one moved to block the unguarded roads.

“This was not very good coordination between the two Afghan groups,” recalled Engineer Pashtun, a top aide to local warlord Gul Agha Shirzai.

Deeper into the desert plains, anti-Taliban warlords lacked telephones or other means of communication, and were barely even in touch with forces allied with the United States. They learned of Omar’s impending surrender from radio broadcasts.

Along the road to Helmand, commander Malim Khad Mazer in the village of Gereshk mustered all the men he could. He claims there were about 1,000 of them, but only about 150 had weapons. They seized the police station, and stopped there. For the rest of the night they laid low.

“If we had been armed and had food and money and satellite phones, then we could have arrested each and every Taliban, including their leaders,” Mazar said.

Elsewhere, Salman Shah’s men were braver – but even more poorly armed. Warned by a midnight messenger that the Taliban were escaping, Shah gathered 20 men. Only five had guns. They picked a point on a main track with a high wall on one side, so approaching vehicles would not be able to see how few men and guns confronted them.

After the first Taliban trucks halted, vehicles toward the rear turned around. A mile back down the road was a river ferry; on the other side were the trackless mountains that could best conceal them. Local residents told Shah later that they heard as many as 20 vehicles crossing the river that night.

“The Taliban were from here so they knew how to operate the boats themselves,” Shah said.

It is unknown whether Omar and other Taliban leaders crossed the river that night or took another route. There are similar stories – and similar uncertainties – about the disappearance of bin Laden along the Afghan-Pakistan border, where mountains rise like giant teeth and experience honed from childhood is required to endure biting cold and pick a path through rocks, roots and thorn bushes. While local commanders complained that the United States was relying too much on air power to pound the deep caves at Tora Bora where bin Laden was believed to be hiding in early December last year, there were doubts about some of the Afghans’ commitment, as well.

One warlord, Haji Mohammed Zaman, was accused by other Afghans of seeking a break in the bombing so that he could negotiate with al-Qaida, only to use the respite to help Arab fighters, presumably with the payment of healthy bribes, escape into the lawless Pakistani tribal areas. According to Western officials, another warlord, Hazrat Ali, also allowed his troops to escort al-Qaida figures into Pakistan.

In many cases the warlords or the commanders who worked under them, had known the al-Qaida figures for years. In tribal landscapes, personal history – and often money – count more than geopolitics.

Bin Laden disappeared so completely that up until this week, many top U.S. officials had said they thought he was dead. Others believe he is operating in the wild tribal lands of Pakistan near the Afghan frontier.

As they face the prospect of tracking down Saddam, U.S. officials now face a renewed challenge from bin Laden. And intelligence source say they believe Omar remains hidden in the mountain redoubts near his birthplace, suggesting the difficulty of the task ahead.

“I do not think they (U.S. forces) will get Mullah Omar,” said a senior diplomat in Kabul who has traveled extensively in the Afghan heartland for 20 years. “For the people where he is hiding, he is from there, he is of them. He acted as they think he should act.”