Washington (AFP) Dec 9, 2009
Killing or capturing Osama bin Laden is the key to defeating the Al-Qaeda terror network, the top US military commander in Afghanistan told US legislators on Tuesday.
"I believe he is an iconic figure at this point whose survival emboldens Al-Qaeda as a franchising organization across the world," said General Stanley McChrystal, testifying in Congress about the US military surge of forces in Afghanistan.
"It would not defeat Al-Qaeda to have him captured or killed, but I don't think that we can finally defeat Al-Qaeda until he's captured or killed," McChrystal told the Senate Armed Services Committee.
US officials believe that bin Laden -- considered the chief mastermind of the attacks of September 11, 2001 on New York and Washington that killed nearly 3,000 people -- is hiding along the mountainous Afghan-Pakistani border.
US ambassador to Afghanistan Karl Eikenberry, also testifying at the hearing, said that capturing or killing bin Laden "does remain important to the American people -- indeed, the people of the world."
McChrystal and Eikenberry testified about the renewed push in the Afghan war after President Barack Obama ordered an additional 30,000 troops to the country.
US national security adviser James Jones told CNN on Sunday that the latest intelligence reports suggest that Bin Laden "is somewhere inside north Waziristan, sometimes on the Pakistani side of the border, sometimes on the Afghan side of the border, hiding in very, very rough mountainous area, generally ungoverned."
However Defense Secretary Robert Gates, also speaking Sunday, said in an interview that Washington did not know where bin Laden was and had lacked reliable information on his whereabouts for years.
A recent Senate report said Bin Laden was "within the grasp" of American forces in late 2001 but escaped because then-defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld rejected calls for reinforcements.
U.S. launches new bid to hunt bin Laden
But almost eight years to the day after the Americans let him slip through their fingers at his Afghan mountain redoubt of Tora Bora, his last confirmed location on or about Dec. 16, 2001, they admit they haven't a clue where he is now.
The best guess is that's holed up in the lawless tribal belt of Waziristan in northwestern Pakistan that runs along the rugged border with Afghanistan.
According to Jason Burke, a British journalist who is an expert on al-Qaida, bin Laden "is almost certainly being sheltered by local sympathizers, not in a cave but in one of the many fort-like compounds that litter the inaccessible frontier region.
"Communicating largely through messages memorized by couriers, ascetic in the extreme, there are few clues as to bin Laden's presence in a given location."
Although the Americans have posted a $50 million bounty on bin Laden's head, recently increased from $25 million, Burke says "betrayal by a member of his inner circle seems unlikely."
A U.S. Senate report last week said bin Laden had been "within the grasp" of U.S. Special Forces in December 2001 when he was supposedly cornered in Tora Bora.
But the hard-hitting report concluded that he was able to escape into Pakistan because U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld refused appeals for more troops by U.S. military commanders on the spot.
On Tuesday the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, testified before Congress: "I don't think we can finally defeat al-Qaida until he's captured or killed.
"I believe he's an iconic figure at this point, whose survival emboldens al-Qaida as a franchising organization across the world."
As President Barack Obama's administration prepares to deploy an additional 30,000 troops to Afghanistan for an Iraq-style surge offensive against the Taliban, there are suggestions that the true objective of the campaign is not to destroy the Taliban, but drive al-Qaida into Pakistan where that country's military is turning up the heat on the jihadists in the tribal belts.
So the surge in Afghanistan, according to that scenario, is part of the plan to flush out bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, an Egyptian jihadist who many suspect is the real brains behind al-Qaida's global jihad.
Syed Saleem Shahzad is a Pakistani who writes for Asia Times Online and has close contacts among the Islamist militants active in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
He noted recently that "the next phase of the war will be primarily aimed at fighting al-Qaida in Pakistan's tribal areas, while all efforts in Afghanistan will focus on a peaceful settlement to pave the way for an American exit."
This, he says, is the view of one of the key intermediaries between the Americans and the Taliban, Daoud Abedi.
He is an Afghan-American businessman based in Los Angeles who is a longtime associate of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, leader of the Hezb-i-Islami Afghanistan who fought the Soviets in the 1979-89 Afghan war and now fights the Americans.
Shahzad says that Abedi has been negotiating on Hekmatyar's behalf with the Americans and British for some time, with an eye on the allies reaching a deal under which the Taliban would accept a transitional government in Kabul and the allies would leave Afghanistan, possibly as early as July 2011.
In that scenario, the Taliban would have to turn on al-Qaida, whose actions against the United States, after all, were what led to the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan following Sept. 11, 2001.
One of the main objectives of this blueprint, Shahzad says, is the United States "wanted to be able to claim the defeat of al-Qaida -- at present the U.S. believes it has only been 70 percent successful."
He quoted Abedi, who held talks with U.S. and British officials in Pakistan and Afghanistan earlier this year, as saying that "for the United States, losing or winning the war is immaterial -- its real fight is against al-Qaida, and therefore, the next phase of the war, the real fight, will be against al-Qaida."
It's an intriguing scenario that, given recent signals of a possible deal with the Taliban, resonates with possibilities.
With bin Laden and Zawahiri squeezed on all sides by the Americans, the Taliban and their Pakistani cousins, and the Pakistani army, they may find their days are numbered.
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