A Taliban Comeback?

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Has the war on terror been a success? Well, yes and no. "I think it's bumbling along in the right direction," says a Western diplomat in Kabul. "Probably, things will be all right." Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, al-Qaeda's two top leaders, remain unaccounted for, and U.S. intelligence sources suspect that both are still alive. So is Mullah Mohammed Omar, the leader of the Taliban. Sources tell Time that Omar may be forging an alliance with Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a particularly dangerous former mujahedin leader — and briefly Prime Minister of Afghanistan — who slipped back into the country around February. "Hekmatyar should be seen as quite as much a worry as Omar," says a Western intelligence official in Kabul. "If the two are cooperating, then the danger of a growth in terrorist attacks and assassinations is very real."

What's more, al-Qaeda seems to be having little trouble funding its continuing operations. According to a draft of a report by a United Nations group charged with monitoring international controls on terrorist groups, only about $10 million of identified terrorist assets have been frozen since the beginning of the year, compared with $112 million in the immediate aftermath of Sept. 11. In Washington, the Treasury Department challenged the report's conclusions on the ineffectiveness of the effort to clamp down on terrorists' assets. But the U.N. document also detailed the relative ease with which terrorists can cross international boundaries and replenish their supplies of weapons. Al-Qaeda, said the report, "is by all accounts 'fit and well' and poised to strike again at its leisure."

In the year since 9/11, the war against terrorism has also had some clear victories. In Afghanistan itself, says Lieut. Colonel David Gray, director of operations for the 10th Mountain Division, "we have certainly defeated if not destroyed the al-Qaeda network as it existed before the war." Military and intelligence analysts agree that the combined power of Taliban and al-Qaeda forces in Afghanistan has been reduced to not much more than several hundred men, none of them assembled in large groups. Another few hundred al-Qaeda fighters are thought to be across the border in Pakistan. One by one, two by two, they are being hunted down.

Finding them all will take time. The U.N. report, confirming intelligence assessments in Islamabad, suggests that al-Qaeda may be regrouping in Indonesia, where bin Laden has friends among radical Islamists. And though the Afghan training camps of al-Qaeda have been destroyed, perhaps 10,000 graduates of them are distributed in cities throughout the world. Nobody ever said that the war on terrorism would be over soon. But the enemy, says Gray, "is on the run — and we want to keep him on the run."