Neutralized Osama 'Better Than Nothing'

Mohamed Fahim, now Afghanistan Minister of Defense, formerly a leader of the Northern Alliance against the Taliban, 12-20-01 AP

Though U.S. forces have failed to capture Osama bin Laden, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld says the manhunt has at least neutralized the terrorist leader.

"Our goal was to try to stop terrorism to the extent that we could, and that means putting pressure on them," Rumsfeld said Monday. "And to the extent enough pressure is applied, they have to stay so busy surviving, moving from place to place," that they cannot plot more terrorist acts.

"That is not your preferred outcome, but it is a better outcome than nothing," Rumsfeld told a Pentagon news conference. President Bush has said he wants bin Laden captured, dead or alive.

Meanwhile, in a sign that the Pentagon is pacing itself for a long war on terrorism, it has decided to reduce the number of aircraft carriers committed to the war in Afghanistan from two to one.

The USS John C. Stennis and its battle group will head for home in a few weeks, as scheduled. The USS Kitty Hawk, which would have replaced it, will instead remain in its usual duty area in the Pacific, officials said. The lone remaining aircraft carrier in the Arabian Sea will be the USS John F. Kennedy.

Officials speaking on condition of anonymity said the Pentagon may soon decide to reduce from two to one the number of Marine Corps amphibious ready groups committed to the war in Afghanistan. Each of these groups has about 2,200 Marines aboard ships. These sea-borne Marines were the first U.S. ground forces to enter Afghanistan — other than Army special forces — but were later replaced by Army infantry.

U.S. officials say there has been little or no sign of bin Laden since last December. There is speculation that he escaped into Pakistan or another country; that he remains in Afghanistan, and that he is dead.

Rumsfeld said it was "interesting to me" that no bin Laden videotape has surfaced in months.

Appearing with Rumsfeld, Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, also stressed the value of having at least forced bin Laden to hunker down and stay out of sight. "The goal there was never after specific individuals," Myers said. "It was to disrupt the terrorists."

Rumsfeld said he was not disturbed that six months after the U.S. military campaign in Afghanistan began, bin Laden remains at large, along with at least a dozen of his most senior lieutenants.

"It's hard to find an individual," he said. "That's why when we began this thing I did not personalize it. ... We said our task is to do what we said it was. We're working on that. We're having good success. You know some of the Nazi war criminals weren't caught for years afterward, years — found in South America. So does that mean that we didn't win World War II?"

Several times during the news conference Rumsfeld asserted that the United States has largely accomplished its goal in Afghanistan, while acknowledging that much work remains to stabilize the new government.

Rumsfeld described the U.S. goals as follows: "To get the al Qaeda and the Taliban out of there and have the interim authority take over; they've done that. And to have it not be a haven for terrorists, and it is not a haven for terrorists at the present time."

Rumsfeld said U.S. forces are focusing on cave complexes and other former al Qaeda hide-outs and fortifications in eastern Afghanistan. The troops are scouring these areas for clues to terrorist plans.

"Just over this past weekend a number of pieces of intelligence were gathered in Afghanistan that are already proving to be valuable," he said without elaborating.

In summarizing progress in the war on terrorism, Rumsfeld said much has been accomplished in Afghanistan and that more remains to be done elsewhere in the world.

"We pledge to continue our efforts until sanctuaries are gone, until networks with global reach are found and stopped and destroyed and until our people can enjoy freedom without fear," he said.

But in Afghanistan Monday, a bomb tore through a crowd lining a road to welcome Afghanistan's defense minister, killing at least four people and injuring 18.

Afghan officials said was another attempt to destabilize the interim government.

Defense Minister Mohammed Fahim was not hurt in the bombing in the eastern city of Jalalabad, which an aide called an assassination attempt.

Interim Afghan leader Hamid Karzai's chief spokesman, Yusuf Nuristani, said he did not want to speculate on the bombers' motives. But a Defense Ministry official, Mir Ajan, called it an assassination attempt by outlaws "trying to destabilize the country and disrupt the minister's plans."

Elsewhere in eastern Afghanistan, at least one person was killed and four were wounded Monday when poppy farmers fired on government officials beginning an ambitious campaign to eradicate the opium-producing flowers.

Meanwhile, international peacekeepers said Kabul police discovered four more Chinese-made rockets aimed toward a camp housing German and Danish troops at the site used to launch two missiles over the weekend.

No one was injured in the weekend attack, but peacekeepers said they believed it was part of a campaign to damage Karzai's administration ahead of the loya jirga, a national grand council that meets in June to select a new government.

Officials said no arrests had been made in the attack, and Fahim returned to the capital later in the day.
  • John Esterbrook

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