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Continuing Search for Taliban and al-Qaida Leaders in Afghanistan

January 3, 2002 at 12:00 AM EDT

RAY SUAREZ: From the U.S. Military base in Kandahar and elsewhere, American commandos today joined the manhunt for the Taliban supreme leader Mullah Mohammed Omar, and roughly 1,500 Taliban troops. The group is believed to be near Baghran, northwest of Kandahar. Separately, that Taliban group is reportedly discussing a possible surrender to Afghan warlords. At the Pentagon today, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was asked about the reports that surrender talks are at a critical stage.

DONALD RUMSFELD: I think that the word that’s carried in the press may or may not be right on the mark. I think that what takes place in Afghanistan is something like this, and I’m not going to suggest that it necessarily is in this case, but I have seen it in several other cases.

And it’s a situation where someone has, they have multiple relationships over a period of three decades. People know each other. They’ve been on this side, they’ve been on that side, and at a certain moment, everyone knows we’re looking for Omar or we’re looking for some senior Taliban leader.And somebody thinks they know where they are, and they think they may know how many people are with them, guarding them or hiding out with them, whatever the case may be. And they come, and they say, “Gee, I think I could talk somebody into doing this if we would let the lower-level people go, or if we would stop long enough for me to get in there so I don’t get killed trying to talk to them.” And you end up with all of this taking place with multiple parties.

We are not authorizing, if anyone wonders, pauses or negotiations, which would result in freeing of people that ought not to be free; freeing of people who kill other people as terrorists; freeing people who have been…have a record of harboring terrorists and of killing people. We are not in the business of authorizing any kind of negotiation, which would let people like that go. Now, do we control every…manage every single aspect of who talks to whom with respect to these various types of discussions? Of course we don’t. We give our advice. We give our counsel. I know that the interim government is right on the same sheet of music with us.

RAY SUAREZ: Asked about the exact location of Omar and his colleagues, Rumsfeld offered this response.

DONALD RUMSFELD: You know, the last person anyone should ask about the whereabouts of any of the senior al-Qaida or Taliban is Don Rumsfeld. To the extent I had any knowledge, it would be self-defeating for our country and for our efforts for me to even utter any thought about that, because it would be a clear indication that those individuals should stop being where they’re being. So I have not in the past and I will not in the future answer those questions about their location.

Anyone who does answer those questions probably either does not know what they’re talking about, or if they do, are violating federal criminal law by providing intelligence information that is against the law to provide to people who are not cleared for that intelligence information.

RAY SUAREZ: Also today in Kandahar, U.S. ground troops returned to the base after scouring a newly discovered al-Qaida training compound. They reportedly found weapons and papers, but little new intelligence. To the northeast in Kabul, the new Afghan government released at least 250 Taliban prisoners in a gesture of national reconciliation. Many had been held by the Northern Alliance for years. Still, the Pentagon says 248 Taliban fighters are in U.S. custody. Some will be transferred to the American base at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba.

DONALD RUMSFELD: We are going to proceed with Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, as the base there as a location for some detainees. They are in the process now of beginning the construction so that we’ll be able to provide the kind of security that these people require. They are very hard cases for the most part. If you think what happened in Mazar-e-Sharif and the uprising in the prison, you think of the number of Pakistani soldiers that were killed, there have been three or four incidents where these folks have demonstrated their determination to kill themselves, kill others, and or escape.

So it is important that the facilities be appropriate. And as soon as they’re well enough along, we’ll begin that process. And we plan to transport them and we plan to use the necessary amount of constraint so that those individuals do not kill Americans in transport or in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

RAY SUAREZ: Meanwhile, in northeast Afghanistan, hundreds are still searching for Osama bin Laden and other al-Qaida fighters, even as the head of U.S. Special Operations said it was “unlikely” they would find bin Laden there. General Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, spoke about the hunt in the Tora Bora region, and U.S. air strikes to the south.

GEN. RICHARD MYERS: In terms of Tora Bora, operations there remain like they have been in the past. We’re still searching the cave areas with approximately the same number of folks that we started with. And in terms of strikes, for the last several days we’ve had no strikes. This morning, I think it has been reported already, we conducted strikes between 10:00 and 11:00 our time in Afghanistan on a leadership compound that was a fairly extensive compound, it had a base camp, a training facility, and some cave pieces to that, fairly close to the Pakistani border.

RAY SUAREZ: While U.S. strikes have tapered off, controversy over the civilian cost has not. Afghan witnesses said three American attacks in late December killed civilians. The Pentagon said each attack hit legitimate targets.

DONALD RUMSFELD: There’s never been a conflict where there have not been civilian deaths. If one were to take this activity in Afghanistan and rank it as to the number of civilian deaths and the care and attentiveness that has gone in to try to have the right weapon and the most precise method of doing things, I can’t imagine there’s been a conflict in history where there has been less collateral damage, less unintended consequences.

With respect to the problem, clearly we want to try to get to the…we want to try to know what the facts are. And to the extent there are facts that suggest there were civilian casualties that might have been avoided, then we’d want to find ways to avoid them in the future.

RAY SUAREZ: The secretary said of his remaining objectives in the search for al-Qaida and Taliban leaders: “We are looking for them, we intend to find them, capture them, or kill them.”

RAY SUAREZ: For more, we turn to Ali Jalali, a former Afghan army colonel who fought against the Soviets in the 1980s. He co-authored a book about Mujahadeen tactics in the Soviet-Afghan war, and is now with the Voice of America. And Lieutenant Colonel Ralph Peters, who retired from the U.S. Army in 1998. He was an officer in army intelligence. He is the author of a number of books including, Fighting for the Future: Will America Triumph? Ali Jalali, though Secretary Rumsfeld clearly didn’t want to talk about it, all the attention this week seems to be turning to the province just north and west of Mullah Omar’s pre-war home of Kandahar, Helmand. Why?

ALI JALALI, Former Afghan Army Officer: Well, there are many of the reports, which were received by the Afghan government and the Kandahar government, I mean the government of Kandahar, that Mullah Omar left Kandahar through Helmand Province. And Helmand is a mountainous area near Baghran. Baghran and Bagram are two locations in the mountainous valleys of upper Helmand. And the tribal chieftain in the area reported that he was there. So it took Kandahar forces a month to get prepared to launch an operation against Mullah Omar. It does not mean that they did not want to do that, but they were concerned mostly of consolidating their control in Kandahar first, so their priorities were first Kandahar and now they are ready to go after Mullah Omar in Helmand.

RAY SUAREZ: Is this a part of the country where he might be expected to find a little bit more sympathetic reception?

ALI JALALI: Well, Mullah Omar and the ousted leadership of Taliban, they do not enjoy much support in the area. However, there are some core elements of the Taliban, mostly Madrasah-trained young Talibs who are supporting him and they number probably around 1,000 or more. However, these people are…it’s very difficult to, you know maintain such a force in a mountainous area of Baghran, so many of them are now trying to negotiate themselves out of the hardship that they are facing there.

RAY SUAREZ: Ralph Peters, are we now watching play out, day by day, the transition from war to something else?

RALPH PETERS: Well, indeed, we’ve moved very rapidly from the broad sweep of warfare to classic anti-guerrilla operations and trying to find a needle in a haystack and on a technical level, this is actually more difficult. We’re very good at warfare. We learn very quickly. I’m glad to criticize the Pentagon when they deserve it, but the campaign in Afghanistan was innovative and I think remarkable. But now, gearing this huge organization, this vast intelligence system, this richness to focus down into this poor country and find individuals in a country the size of Texas but much more complex terrainwise, it’s really, really tough.

And I think the one thing that laypeople often miss about military operations of this nature, or of any nature, is the importance of luck. You can do everything right, get the intel right, get the tactics right, have the right people on the ground. But ultimately, warfare is a lot more like Vegas than a science lab. You can increase your odds, but we can’t say that this is going to end tomorrow or in a year.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, you’re very familiar with the terrain of your home country. What is involved in trying to find one man or even a group of men who are protecting one man?

ALI JALALI: Well, any infantryman will know that the terrain is the last chapter of a battlefield or the last element in a battlefield. Terrain is very important, and that area that we are looking at, Baghran, is a mountainous area with some caves and then also they prepared some other installation in the area. However, the terrain is not the element here. Here, the support of the local population is the element. If the local population withdraws support from the Taliban leadership, terrain is not going to help them. So you are not fighting a kind of a tactical battle in a mountainous area. You are facing a political situation. So when these tribal leaders, or even those who are supporting the leadership of Taliban, withdraw their support or they try to find a way out of the situation, then the terrain is not going to help them.

RAY SUAREZ: Anything to add?

RALPH PETERS: Well, I think Mr. Jalali has expressed it very, very well. But we also have to recognize that, with the population, although the tide has turned, as far as the popular will goes, against the Taliban for now. In Afghanistan, nobody, no movement really goes away. It simmers on for generations, for years, it mutates. And also, I think we have to recognize that, within the Afghan government, a very diverse collection of men of varied talents and morals indeed, that there are radically different agendas. I’m sure there are some, I think Mr. Karzai is one of them, who would love to get Omar off his hands, not being seen as subserviently handing him over, but find some device to just get him into U.S. custody and get rid of him because Afghanistan doesn’t need that problem.

But other Afghans owe Omar and may feel some allegiance and still others want him dead before he gets into U.S. hands because of everything he knows about them. So for us, our intelligence has improved drastically over the month, impressively. But I still don’t think we have the tactile feel for who owes what to whom in Afghanistan. What do you think, sir?

ALI JALALI: Yes, I agree with what you said. What you see in Afghanistan is a very complex situation, although you have a central government, but this government does not control everything in the country. So you have to deal with several people, as Secretary Rumsfeld said, there are many parties involved here: the local chieftain, the governor of Fadat, Helmand, and other elements opposed to the Taliban. And therefore, there are several different interests. You have to work around these interests and priorities. As I said before, it is a very complex political situation.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, let’s take it away from the politics and go back strictly to military questions. When you’re dealing with this situation of what you call the different agendas, when you have some people who have surrendered and given up their weapons and been allowed to return home, some people who’ve surrendered but not given up their weapons, some organized units that have simply changed sides in the midst of the war, how do you know what you’re dealing with, if you’re from an outside force like the British peacekeepers or the American forces that are still on the ground?

RALPH PETERS: Well, the first step is to not become arrogant about how much you know and recognize that there always will be a great deal you don’t know. And in the absence of good intelligence or reliable information, then you do it by the numbers, and that’s what I think what the Marines have been doing. You have to show the flag. In Afghanistan especially, out of sight is out of mind. The people, they’re not watching the Jim Lehrer show or CNN or anything else, so the Marines get out there, look for intelligence, but also demonstrate or will. Secretary Rumsfeld has been saying just the right things. He’s been very wise, as has President Bush, in not to have a pause. You can’t let the guy off the ropes. And that’s something we’ve tended to do in the past.

And while the world is watching the Marines, by the way, I’m certain our Special Operations Forces are really rooting through the backcountry and looking for them. But I also think that we’ve found in the last couple of weeks that there are many factions in Afghanistan that we cannot rely upon. Some we can, some we cannot. And they need starch; they need stiffening, and U.S. troops, whether it’s the Special Forces “A” team or Marines provide that.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, what do you do if you’re a military commander looking over a country that’s been at war nearly constantly for over 20 years? There are an awful lot of armed men out there, some still in irregular units, some in bands in the mountains. When do you know when it’s over?

ALI JALALI: Well, it will be…it’s a long process. I don’t think it will be possible for the country to disarm the militias. You have now a government without an army, and you have warlords with militias. So therefore, initially you have to work with these militias. However, in the long run, you have to disarm the warlords and arm the state. You know, normally, a state creates an army. But in Afghanistan during the past 20 years, armies created states or governments. So you have to reverse this process. But you cannot do it, you know, in a short time. It’s long term. Maybe at some point you have to buy out all these militias and create an army for the state, an army, that would not belong to factions but belong to the nation. That’s a long process. That’s going to be a major challenge for the interim government and maybe the government which follows it. So the closing stage of a war is always the very difficult stage here.

RAY SUAREZ: And very briefly, how does an American commander know when it’s over for him and his men?

RALPH PETERS: He knows it’s over when the president says it’s over. And frankly, in this particular war, it’s not going to be over until there are a lot more men, enemy Taliban, al-Qaida members, dead or behind bars.

RAY SUAREZ: So you’re talking about a long guerrilla mop-up operation, small units?

RALPH PETERS: Well, in Afghanistan, it may be over in months. I think we’re going to need a presence there to support the government, maybe a small one, for years. It was interesting to see the defense minister try to say to America, “Well, thanks very much you guys can leave now because they do have their agendas.” But beyond Afghanistan, and we must look far beyond it, the struggle against terrorism is not going to end in our lifetimes.

RAY SUAREZ: Ralph Peters, Ali Jalali, thank you both.

RALPH PETERS: Thank you.