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[] Commando Solo setzt OBL Kopfgeld aus,

Special Forces Block Traffic in Search for bin Laden 

By Vernon Loeb and Bradley Graham
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, November 15, 2001; Page A35 

Helicopter-borne U.S. Special Forces set up roadblocks on main north-south roads in Afghanistan yesterday in a stepped-up search for Taliban leader Mohammad Omar and reputed terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden.

With Taliban forces in retreat from most cities, Air Force EC-130E "Commando Solo" flights increased radio broadcasts and leaflet drops offering a $25 million reward for bin Laden. U.S. intelligence operatives supplied weapons, ammunition, food and clothing to anti-Taliban Pashtun guerrillas in the south of the country, according to sources.

The Pentagon is also sending three AC-130 gunships to Uzbekistan for use against Taliban and al Qaeda terrorist forces, a senior military officer said. The gunships would complement six AC-130s that have flown missions over Afghanistan from Oman.

Speaking to reporters at his ranch in Crawford, Tex., last night, President Bush said, "Our military and our troops on the ground are on the hunt to accomplish the objective and will stay there until they achieve that objective."

The Taliban's swift demise caught U.S. war planners by surprise, defense officials acknowledged yesterday, and the often chaotic situation on the roads continued to hamper the effectiveness of airstrikes in the south.

Signaling a strategy in southern Afghanistan that more directly involves U.S. Special Forces in a ground combat role, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said Special Operations teams were stopping vehicles on major roads in a search for fleeing Taliban and al Qaeda members.

Asked what action might be taken against hostile forces stopped on the road, Rumsfeld said: "If they're the kind you want to shoot, you shoot them."

Rumsfeld stressed that finding bin Laden, Omar and other senior Taliban and al Qaeda leaders is now the Pentagon's top priority, but he said hard information is still lacking on them. "Some have been killed," he said. "Others are hiding. And there are no particular reports of senior leadership having been located."

Defense officials reported yesterday that U.S. warplanes bombed a building in Kabul early Tuesday -- just hours before rebel Northern Alliance forces entered the Afghan capital -- that they believed to be a meeting place for al Qaeda members. A spokesman for the U.S. Central Command in Tampa said that officials subsequently learned that the building housed an office of al-Jazeera, a Qatar-based satellite network.

The officials said they believed some al Qaeda leaders may have been killed.

"What we think we know comes from some cell phone intercepts, some excited or angry exchanges between Taliban and al Qaeda members," a senior military officer said.

Army Gen. Tommy R. Franks, who is commander of the Afghan war, was scheduled to fly to Washington from Tampa today to meet senior administration officials about the war's next phase.

Among the likely changes in strategy, one senior defense official said, is using more unmanned reconnaissance aircraft and other intelligence-gathering tools to search for bin Laden and Omar.

"We're going to have to generate a lot more intelligence if we hope to get these guys," a senior Pentagon official said.

The disorderly Taliban retreat from the north has complicated the U.S. bombing campaign because pilots have been unable to distinguish fleeing Taliban troops from noncombatants or, in the south, from anti-Taliban Pashtun tribal groups also on the move. Pentagon officials reported again yesterday that significant numbers of warplanes were returning from their missions without having dropped bombs.

Briefing reporters at the Pentagon, Rear Adm. John D. Stufflebeem, a senior official on the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the reasons for the Taliban retreat from most major cities remained unclear. "It may be that they are regrouping," he said. "It may be that they are abandoning and retreating. . . . I think we would certainly hope that it's a collapse."

Other Pentagon officials also were hesitant in their assessments of the Taliban retreat. Although the Taliban withdrawal had all the appearances of a rout, officials held out the possibility that at least some Taliban forces were acting on instructions to fall back and regroup.

Britain's announcement, meanwhile, that it has put 5,000 additional troops on alert for possible deployment to Afghanistan was another sign that the United States and its main allies are preparing for a different military campaign than has been waged in the north. In the north, U.S. Special Forces on the ground were used primarily to coordinate airstrikes in support of Northern Alliance troops.

The Pentagon also reported new deployments, ordering about 2,000 troops from the 1st Cavalry Division to Kuwait. The deployment represents roughly twice the number of U.S. ground forces that usually rotate through Kuwait every four to six months as a tripwire against potential Iraqi aggression.

Beyond the more intensive use of Special Forces, another key difference in the emerging southern strategy is that intelligence operatives are working to keep Pashtun tribal leaders from coalescing into a single military force, for fear that the country could be plunged into a civil war. The Northern Alliance, which now controls the northern half of the country, is made up primarily of ethnic Uzbeks, Tajiks and Hezaras.

Instead, Central Intelligence Agency officers are helping Pashtun guerrilla forces gather intelligence about Taliban troops and the location of bin Laden, Omar and other leaders.

Another important difference in the south, one U.S. official said, is that Pashtun commanders are willing to accept covert U.S. assistance but want to appear to be "free actors."

Many of the key Pashtun commanders remain nameless to many in senior Pentagon positions, according to defense officials with access to intelligence assessments, noting that battlefield reports have contained few specifics about the Pashtun chiefs now leading the anti-Taliban resistance in the south.

But there is a presumption that much of the new southern opposition stems from a pragmatic calculation by the tribal leaders that the Taliban is finished.

"What we're probably seeing is leaders trying to position themselves to get the best deal for their tribes in a post-Taliban Afghanistan," one senior defense official said.

In recent days, U.S. intelligence reports also have noted an influx into southern Afghanistan of mujaheddin leaders who had opposed the Taliban and were residing in Pakistan.

Staff writer Walter Pincus contributed to this report.

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