Stopping Escaping Al Qaeda, Taliban Like 'Searching for Fleas'
By Linda D. Kozaryn
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Dec. 17, 2001 Catching Al Qaeda and Taliban troops "on the run" in the mountains and caves around Tora Bora, Afghanistan, is like "searching for fleas on a dog," according to a senior military official.
"If you see one, you don't know how many others are getting away," Rear Adm. John D. Stufflebeem, a Joint Staff spokesman, said.
Tora Bora remains the top priority for U.S. Special Forces and opposition group fighters in Afghanistan, the admiral told Pentagon reporters. Over the weekend, U.S. and coalition aircraft continued pounding the cave complex where Al Qaeda and Taliban forces still hold isolated pockets.
Al Qaeda and Taliban forces reportedly are leaving the area but not in large numbers, he said. Sporadic firing still erupts in one of the two valleys in the region where U.S. Special Forces are supporting opposition troops. The ground forces search caves and bunkers following U.S. and coalition air strikes.
"Every cave that is entered is being treated as a hostile environment," Stufflebeem said. "While the fierce fighting we've seen up to a few hours ago may have subsided a little bit, it now becomes the more difficult and the slow process of confirming who is left to fight."
While opposition forces may have allowed some Al Qaeda and Taliban leaders to escape, a number of Al Qaeda and Taliban troops have surrendered or been captured, Stufflebeem said. In all, opposition groups are holding about 100 captives, including two Al Qaeda commanders.
U.S. forces have set up detention facilities at Forward Operating Base Rhino and at the Kandahar airport. U.S. military officials are getting access to those prisoners they wish to interrogate, he said.
Three Marines injured over the weekend while conducting demining operations at the airport in Kandahar have been moved out of Afghanistan to regional medical facilities. All three were seriously injured. One Marine has had his leg amputated; another has a hand injury; and the third has a head wound.
Five detainees are now in U.S. custody aboard the USS Peleliu. They include an Australian and John Walker, the American found among captives after a prison uprising near Mazar-e Sharif in early December. U.S. officials still don't know the identities or nationalities of the remaining three, Stufflebeem said, but he confirmed they are not Afghans.
FBI and other U.S. authorities have gone to the Peleliu to talk with Walker, he noted.
At the moment, Stufflebeem said, "it's anybody's guess" where Osama bin Laden is hiding, but there is no evidence he has left Afghanistan. At one point, he said, intelligence reports indicated bin Laden was in Kandahar.
U.S. officials use open press reports, interrogation of prisoners and volunteered information in their attempt to track Bin Laden and Mullah Mohammed Omar's whereabouts, he noted. The $25 million reward for Bin Laden and the $10 million reward for Omar are incentives.
"One report I read," Stufflebeem said, " said that an opposition group leader claimed he heard Bin Laden on a tactical radio a few days ago."
Commando Solo aircraft continue broadcasting, and U.S. forces continue delivering leaflets and humanitarian aid, Stufflebeem said.
Previously, U.S. defense officials had said U.S. forces would no longer conduct mass "flutter" drops of loose humanitarian daily ration packs. Today Stufflebeem said those are continuing for now. Two C-17 Globemaster III cargo planes dropped 17,000 of the daily ration packs northwest of Kunduz Dec. 16, Stufflebeem said. That brings the total to roughly 2.4 million to date.