US Changes Strategy in Al-Qaeda Hunt

 

Wednesday  March 3, 2004

Mike Collett-White, Reuters  --  Arab news

KABUL, 3 March 2004 — US forces are basing more troops in the south and east of Afghanistan and spending longer on patrol in rural areas to help gather intelligence about Al-Qaeda and Taleban militants, the US military said yesterday.

The shift to more personal contact with Afghans comes amid heightened efforts in Pakistani tribal areas to hunt down rebels and growing confidence among American forces that they are closing in on Osama Bin Laden, the world’s most wanted man. The changes appear to be a tacit admission that previous large-scale operations by 10,600 US-led troops in Afghanistan mostly failed to net significant numbers of guerrillas or senior militant figures.

Searches conducted in villages and towns in the deeply conservative south and east of the country, where remnants of the ousted Taleban regime are most active, have also angered locals who complained of heavy-handed tactics and arbitrary arrests. “When our infantry go out they spend a longer time on patrols, generally,” US military spokesman Lt. Col. Bryan Hilferty told reporters in Kabul. “It’s also in rural areas. The patrols last for up to a week.

“We are having less of infantry battalions moving around the country and more putting them in one location.”

He said an infantry company had been stationed in Qalat, the capital of the southern province of Zabul, and part of a battalion was now based in Ghazni, a town 120 km southwest of Kabul. Militants are active in both areas.

According to Hilferty, repeated visits to villages would improve personal contact between locals and foreign troops, a tactic which has been likened to that used by US forces in Iraq to locate and capture Saddam Hussein.

US military officials in Afghanistan have already said the deployment of 11 civilian-military teams across Afghanistan had helped them gather intelligence, and more such teams are planned.

While Bin Laden’s capture would be a huge boost for President George W. Bush in election year, US forces must also contain a resurgent Taleban militia which has waged repeated attacks on foreign troops, their Afghan allies and aid organizations.

More than 550 people have died in the violence in seven months. Taleban fighters vow to disrupt presidential elections scheduled for June and launch suicide attacks in major cities.

Two international peacekeepers were killed by suicide bombers on consecutive days in Kabul in January, and five Afghan aid workers were executed northeast of Kabul on Wednesday.

Bin Laden, his deputy Ayman Al-Zawahri and Taleban leader Mulla Mohammad Omar are believed to be along the Afghan-Pakistan border, a 2,450 km frontier of mountains and desert where local support for militants is often strong.

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