U.S. military commander says U.S. troops in Afghanistan chipping away at al-Qaida

Friday, August 30th 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

BAGRAM, Afghanistan (AP) _ Despite a reduction in fighting, American troops are chipping away at al-Qaida forces, and even if they don't capture Osama bin Laden, ``we are going to shut down his terrorist apparatus,'' the U.S. military commander in Afghanistan said Friday.

In an interview with The Associated Press, Lt. Gen. Dan K. McNeill also said that if the international peacekeeping force were to be expanded beyond Kabul as some have called for, then major countries must ``come forward with their resources'' to get the job done.

McNeill said progress in the war in Afghanistan, now in its 11th month, could not be measured by the number and intensity of battles. The last major engagement with al-Qaida and Taliban forces occurred in March, after which enemy troops were believed to have fled into Pakistan.

``We are doing things each day that make it harder and harder for the terrorists not only to operate but to survive,'' McNeill said. He listed the discovery of weapons caches, Taliban and al-Qaida documents and arrests of people with information about the terror network.

``We're continuing to chip away at the al-Qaida organization,'' McNeill said. He said there is no compelling evidence whether bin Laden is alive or dead. McNeill added that if bin Laden is alive, ``we don't have to find him because we are going to shut down his terrorist apparatus.''

As evidence, McNeill cited the seizure of weapons and ammunition caches and the ongoing arrests of people believed linked to the terrorist network. McNeill did not address the issue of al-Qaida assets outside Afghanistan and beyond his command.

When President Bush first launched the assault on the Taliban and al-Qaida in Afghanistan, he vowed to find bin Laden ``dead or alive,'' though administration officials have since insisted the campaign is not targeting a single man but bin Laden's entire terror network.

On Wednesday, Afghan troops accompanied by U.S. special forces arrested 95 alleged Taliban supporters in a raid on the town of Meivand about 30 miles west of Kandahar. The raid angered residents who said some of those arrested were policemen working for the central government.

In the latest U.S. combat mission, Operation Mountain Sweep, U.S. officers said troops found several large weapons caches and arrested 10 people during an eight-day sweep in Khost province along the Pakistani border.

However, there were no major battles with al-Qaida or Taliban forces. Some officers in the field speculated that the mission was compromised by security lapses and enemy fighters fled. McNeill said the soldiers' expectations may have been too high.

McNeill predicted more clashes, albeit on a small scale, as coalition troops press the hunt for al-Qaida and Taliban fugitives in the rugged Afghan terrain.

``We haven't won, but we're winning,'' McNeill insisted. He cited the fact that a new transitional government under President Hamid Karzai had been selected by an Afghan grand council, or loya jirga, in June and had begun to function.

Schools have opened, crops have been planted, homes rebuilt and markets are operating as the country takes on a semblance of normalcy, he said.

Some critics say that the return to normalcy has been largely limited to the capital Kabul, where nearly 5,000 international peacekeepers maintain security in a mission separate from the ongoing, U.S.-led war.

International aid agencies and human rights organizations have urged expansion of the International Security and Assistance Force, or ISAF, to other parts of the country.

However, the proposal has won little support within the U.N. Security Council because the United States, Britain, France and other major powers do not want to commit additional forces. The United States hopes that an Afghan National Army, undergoing training by U.S. and French soldiers, will be able to assume security responsibilities nationwide.

``No one can dispute the degree of security and stability that ISAF has brought to Kabul and the areas around the city,'' McNeill said. He said the question of expanding ISAF was not his responsibility.

If any expansion were to take place, he said ``members of the international community'' would have to ``come forward with their resources, get them out of Kabul and out to the hinterlands and begin to do these things _ build roads, bridges, help with the schools and the clinics, help set up a system where teachers get back into their communities.''

McNeill noted the contribution of other countries in Afghanistan, singling out Jordan for opening a hospital in Mazar e-Sharif, Poland for clearing land mines and Italy for repairing the battered runways at Bagram Air Base, the coalition headquarters.

McNeill also praised neighboring Pakistan, which he called ``one of our best allies in the war on terror.''

``They have captured more terrorists than any other member of the coalition,'' he said. ``They are doing maneuvers against terrorists on their own side of the border.''