Agence France Presse
Wednesday 16 March 2005
Last Update 16 March 2005 12:00 am
BAGRAM AIR BASE, Afghanistan, 16 March 2005 — The top US commander in Afghanistan said yesterday his forces will keep working “very, very hard” to find Al-Qaeda chief Osama Bin Laden and Taleban fugitives, despite difficult terrain and bad weather.
“We don’t know where he is: if we had a good definition we would have had obviously apprehended him at this point. I think that it is very difficult and I can’t really speculate,” Lt. Gen. David Barno told reporters. Barno said US troops would continue the hunt for Bin Laden and other senior Taleban leaders including Mulla Omar.
“Those senior leaders out there, the Hekmatyars, the Mulla Omars, OBLs, - the hunt for them will continue,” he told a briefing at Bagram air base, the US military’s headquarters in Afghanistan. More than three years after the US toppled Afghanistan’s Taleban regime which had sheltered Al-Qaeda, its troops are no nearer finding Bin Laden, Mulla Omar or former Afghan Prime Minister Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who is wanted for terror attacks.
Barno said the 18,000 US-led coalition troops faced a difficult challenge because of “the immensity of the territory involved, the mountainous terrain, tough weather. “We’ll continue to work very, very hard. I don’t think I can really characterize how close or how far we are — our proximity to those targets,” he added.
Bin Laden and wanted Taleban leaders are thought to be hiding in the rugged tribal borderlands between Afghanistan and Pakistan but Barno said the US could not pinpoint his location. Barno said in the last six months there had been a “dramatic downturn in enemy attacks” in Afghanistan.
Last year had represented a “very important turning point” in Afghan history, he said. Eight million people turned out to vote in Afghanistan’s first presidential election in October and fears of major attacks by Taleban insurgents failed to materialize. “In February, for example we saw the lowest level of enemy attacks of all types across the country in two years,” Barno said.
He added that attacks by insurgents would likely rise as the weather warmed in April and May but a government-backed effort to offer amnesty to many Taleban fighters would have a “dramatic” effect on the insurgents. “There may be opportunities for non-criminal Taleban to come back and rejoin the people of Afghanistan, the political process and the economic growth,” Barno added.
He, however, declined to predict when the United States would wind down its military presence in Afghanistan. “We are certainly here in Afghanistan, committed to ensuring a free democratic and secure Afghanistan ... but again there is no master plan. It depends on conditions,” said Francis J. Harvey, Secretary of the Army.
There is a plan for NATO peacekeepers to expand their role as the US force is drawn down. The peacekeepers are stationed largely in Kabul and parts of the north. US troops among the 2,400-strong force, largely composed of Afghan National Army troops, which is currently stationed around Herat, expect to be redeployed in the summer.
NATO peacekeepers will then take responsibility for the relatively peaceful region. The main US-led forces are concentrated in the east, south and southeast of the country where the Taleban-inspired insurgency has been most active. Once their mission is over, Washington is widely expected to retain a military presence by negotiating base rights with Karzai’s government.
Meanwhile, a joint Afghan-UN election commission has proposed holding Afghanistan’s long-delayed parliamentary polls in mid-September, its chairman said yesterday. “We suggest that the parliamentary election should be delayed for another six months. It means that the parliamentary election should be held in the third week of Sunbula,” Bismillah Bismil, chairman of the Joint Electoral Management Body said, referring to mid-September on the Afghan calendar.
The JEMB, which met political parties yesterday, will have to get the parties’ blessing and will also need to consult donor countries funding the elections. Karzai, installed as transitional leader after US-led forces overthrew the Taleban in late 2001, does not have a political party, but his cabinet will need the approval of the new parliament to keep their jobs.
More than 10.5 million people will be able to vote in the election for a 249-seat lower house of Parliament and provincial councils, and there will be a chance for new voters to add their name to the voter register. Officials have said district council elections supposed to be held at the same time might not be possible this year, unless disputes over electoral boundaries are resolved.