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Catching the Big Fish
The military defeat of the Taliban dealt a punishing blow to al-Qaeda's infrastructure, thinned its ranks and reduced the network's ability to coordinate large-scale attacks. "Afghanistan is no longer a training camp for terrorists," Rumsfeld says. "The al-Qaeda that were there are either dead or captured or on the run." Before the war, bin Laden was believed to have amassed in Afghanistan a force of 12,000 foreign fighters drawn from the Middle East, Central Asia and Pakistan who would battle the invading Americans to the death. Today, U.S. and Afghan intelligence officials believe only a few hundred hard-core al-Qaeda operatives remain alive in Afghanistan, with a similar number hiding across the border in Pakistan. The rest were captured or killed or forced to flee, in smaller numbers, to places like Indonesia, Yemen, Iran and Iraq.
Among those believed to be in hiding, of course, is the man the U.S. wants most. Bin Laden is "not just a cog in a machine that can be easily replaced," says a Pentagon official. "If he's gone, it could lead to al-Qaeda crumbling." The Pentagon's best chance to nab bin Laden came last December, when he was thought to be cornered in the craggy valleys of Tora Bora in eastern Afghanistan. The American strategy was to enlist Afghan proxies to search the caves for bin Laden while U.S. warplanes pummeled possible sanctuaries from overhead. The scheme failed miserably. The Afghans were poorly trained and ill equipped and lacked their opponents' to-the-death fighting spirit. Officials with the U.S. military's Central Command maintain that they did not have enough troops on the ground to mount an assault on Tora Bora; but U.S. commanders resisted dispatching even the 1,000 Marines in Afghanistan at the time to find bin Laden. Some officers now say that instead of trying to finish the job quickly and with minimal risks last year, the U.S. should have tried to surround bin Laden's lair, deploy troops to seal off the Pakistani border and wait until spring to attack. Even then, Pentagon officials say, bin Laden might still have slipped through their grasp.
The twist to the military's success in driving al-Qaeda out of Afghanistan is that bin Laden and his top henchmen are now more elusive than ever. If they have relocated to a teeming urban setting like Peshawar, surrounded by innocent civilians, the U.S. would not be able to use its massive firepower to get them. That said, antiterrorism efforts in Pakistan have scored two big hits: the March capture of al-Qaeda operations chief Abu Zubaydah and last month's arrest of Ramzi Binalshibh, a Yemeni accused of involvement in the Sept. 11 attacks.
Afghan officials in Kunduz interviewed by Time say the U.S. committed another major blunder in late November, when American commanders, according to these sources, agreed to allow Pakistan to airlift a "limited number" of Pakistani intelligence agents out of Afghanistan. Witnesses say that when the transport planes and helicopters arrived in Kunduz, hundreds of Taliban and foreign al-Qaeda fighters jostled for space on the flights. Locals believe that as many as 1,000 boarded the flights to Pakistan; according to Kunduz's deputy governor, Saeed Abra, the passengers included several al-Qaeda leaders and the staff and families of a number of top Taliban commanders. The Pentagon has repeatedly denied it cut any deal with Pakistan.