U.S. special forces and their Afghan allies have been going from cave to cave in the mountainous Tora Bora region in eastern Afghanistan, looking for remaining al-Qaida fighters and sifting through any evidence the Islamic militants may have left behind when they fled their hideouts.
According to Gen. Peter Pace, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, U.S. special forces will have to go through each of the several hundred caves in the region, including those that have been sealed by U.S. bombs.
“And so it’s going to be step by step, cave by cave, and to put a time limit on that would be imprudent right now,” Pace said.
A leading anti-Taliban tribal commander, Hazrat Ali, today declared an end to the assault on al-Qaida’s Tora Bora cave complexes.
“There is no information from anywhere that the al-Qaida were still hiding in the mountains,” the Afghan Islamic Press quoted Ali as saying.
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was more reluctant to declare victory, reiterating the need for patience in apprehending other key leaders of the al-Qaida terrorist network, notably Osama bin Laden.
“We have reduced the number of areas within Afghanistan where they are likely to be,” Rumsfeld said today at a news conference at NATO’s headquarters in Brussels, Belgium. “The task is still ahead of us and it should not be considered that it will be accomplished in a short period of time. It’s going to be tough, dirty, hard work.”
The United States hopes to gain intelligence about the whereabouts of the senior al-Qaida leaders and any other planned terrorist attacks from captured fighters.
Some 15 new prisoners captured by anti-Taliban northern opposition fighters were being transported to a U.S.-run detention center at the Kandahar airport in southern Afghanistan today. There are now about 20 Taliban and al-Qaida prisoners in U.S. custody.
Five of those prisoners are on board the USS Peleliu amphibious assault ship in the Arabian Sea. American Taliban fighter John Walker and Australian Taliban fighter David Hicks were joined today by three other prisoners who could be key Taliban or al-Qaida figures.
“If those men are who we think they are, they’re fairly important people,” Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz said.
U.S. soldiers and CIA officers have been interviewing these prisoners in hopes of finding information about the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden or Taliban supreme leader Mullah Mohammed Omar, who was last seen in the southern city of Kandahar before the Taliban fled their spiritual capital on Dec. 7.
U.S. military personnel have also been able to interview hundreds of prisoners in the custody of anti-Taliban forces in Afghanistan and law enforcement authorities in Pakistan. Pakistani authorities have reportedly captured about 88 al-Qaida fighters fleeing the U.S. bombing in Afghanistan.
Early Tuesday morning, a U.S. soldier was injured as he helped clear mines at Bagram airport near Kabul. He was the second U.S. soldier to lose his foot during a mine-sweeping operation.
The new Afghan leadership
Hamid Karzai, selected to be the leader of the new interim government in Afghanistan, met with former Afghan King Zahir Shah in Rome today.
He said he looks forward to a smooth transition when his government takes power Saturday, but he cautioned rival groups that only a unified defense ministry would be tolerated.
“They are part of Afghanistan,” Karzai said in Rome. “We have a ministry of defense and all forces in Afghanistan must eventually be under the ministry of defense.”
A British-led international peacekeeping force is to arrive in Afghanistan before the interim government takes office Saturday.
A spokesman for Prime Minister Tony Blair said Britain would contribute 1,500 troops to the peacekeeping force. Some 16 other nations, including France, Spain, Malaysia, the Czech Republic and Australia, will also take part in the effort.