On the Hunt for Mullah Omar

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In the search for the Taliban chief, the U.S. has to rely on local help

Knowing roughly where Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar is hiding is one thing. Finding him is another. For months Afghan government and U.S. military sources have believed that the man who gave sanctuary to Osama bin Laden has found refuge of his own in an arc of inaccessible mountains north of Kandahar. It is a place where even a half-blind cleric on the run has factors in his favor: a harsh environment, strong tribal ties, loyal friends and a population increasingly disposed to hate the Americans. Little wonder, says a senior Kandahar police commander, that after months of searching, the coalition forces "are not one inch closer to getting hold" of Omar.

To close in on him, U.S. forces would need to land an inspired bit of intelligence on the more precise whereabouts of the Taliban chieftain — or else benefit from more dumb luck than they have had so far. Why not just invade and scour the area where the locals say he is roaming? "It's strong Taliban country," notes a senior U.S. military official. A blind search would be too dangerous to undertake for just one guy.

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The Pentagon last week denied reports that the July 1 air operation that killed up to 48 civilians at a wedding party in the Deh Rawod district in southern Uruzgan province was a botched attempt to kill the Taliban leader. But a senior military official maintains that whatever the Pentagon has said subsequently, Omar was the original target: "They thought they had him." Omar is originally from Deh Rawod, and U.S. Army spokesman Major Gary Tallman told reporters in Afghanistan that "multiple intelligence sources" suggested he was in the area at the time of the U.S. raid. The bride at the devastated party was the niece of Mullah Bradar, a top Taliban official who is suspected of being among those protecting Omar — just the kind of man he might want to honor with his presence. Two weeks after that debacle, Omar was spotted northwest of Deh Rawod, in Baghran, looking "clearly depressed," according to a senior Afghan intelligence officer in Kabul. Local people told the intelligence officer's agent that Omar had lost family members in the wedding-party bombing.

In the aftermath of that raid, coalition forces can hardly count on friendly tips from the mountain folk of Uruzgan, Zabul, Helmand and Kandahar provinces to help them close in on Omar. Many there sympathize with Omar. "They are his friends, he is their leader, and he is also their guest," says Mullah Gul Akhund, a police commander in Kandahar. "They must protect him." Should those bonds prove feeble, the Taliban know how to drive home the consequences of treachery. In mid-June, Mullah Bradar was seen on horseback in Helmand province, in the mountains near Washir. About the same time, a "night letter," or propaganda leaflet, presumably placed or inspired by Bradar, was found plastered to a Washir mosque, threatening anyone who collaborated with the new government.

Even if locals wanted to turn Omar in, most would have a hard time identifying him, given how reclusive and photo shy he is. "You can't find people who can point Mullah Omar out and say, 'This is him,'" says al-Hajji Mullah Khaksar, a former Taliban deputy minister. Given the slim chance of turning an Omar ally, the coalition forces have had to place hope in the two-man U.S. military "reconnaissance and surveillance" teams hidden in the region, watching the valleys and villages for signs of Omar's movements.

Pentagon sources say the civilian casualties at Deh Rawod have not cooled their ardor for catching him. Though bin Laden remains the more wanted target, the image of Omar, the ghost rider in the mountains, already imbued in the popular imagination with mystical powers of evasion, is one vexation the Kabul government — and its Western backers — wants to banish once and for all.