Some Critical Local Help to Find Bin Laden

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The U.S. efforts to recruit local help to capture Osama bin Laden got a large boost Friday when the most powerful military commander in Jalalabad announced his troops will launch an attack on one of bin Laden?s most likely hiding places, the mountain stronghold of Tora Bora. Hazrat Ali declared that he and other leaders "have decided to eliminate the Arabs in Tora Bora as soon as possible," adding that "if we didn't decide to attack, the Americans would have decided to do it." He gave no timetable.

The campaign, if it comes, won't start immediately. The three warlords in Jalalabad are still working out their power-sharing, and the city is tense. Ali controls the biggest and best-armed militia, which has several thousand men. Ali spent the past four years guarding the entrance to the Panjshir Valley on behalf of the Northern Alliance, a group he has relations with but never really joined. His biggest rival is Haji Zaman, who brought his smaller and poorly armed group of soldiers from Pakistan, where they'd lived in exile since the Taliban took power. Then there's Haji Qadir, who also spent the Taliban years in Pakistan, is now the provincial governor and just pulled out of national reconciliation talks in Bonn. His office's last act before he left for Germany was to declare that all foreigners crossing the Khyber Pass do so with his armed guards, at $100 per traveler, and stay in Jalalabad at the guest house in his residential compound, also at $100 a night.

Zaman, who spent the past several years living in Dijon, France, has been a key man in negotiations with the U.S. He recently flew back from Dijon to command Jalalabad's second-biggest militia. He says he has "met face-to-face? with U.S. officials in the past few days, and seemed annoyed with U.S. foot-dragging. "The U.S. has promised several times to help us but we have received nothing yet,? he says. ?We have no weaponry or warm clothes for our soldiers."

Jalalabad is the most important city in eastern Afghanistan, although you wouldn't know it from looking at the place. It consists mostly of unpaved roads winding past walled houses that resemble fortresses. But it?s the only possible staging area. It's about 30 miles north of Tora Bora, and many of the fighters here battled the Russians in Tora Bora in the 1980s. Still even Zaman's own fighters doubt Tora Bora can be captured. One of the guards outside the wall that surrounds his home fought the Russians in Tora Bora in the ?80s. He says the networks of caves and bunkers in the rough mountains make looking for a few thousand Arabs "like looking for a monkey in the jungle." Soon, they will start looking.