Government Hopes Afghanis Will Find bin Laden

WASHINGTON?The Pentagon hopes Afghans motivated by the Taliban’s collapse and millions in U.S. reward money will find Osama bin Laden’s hide-out so U.S. troops won’t have to hunt cave-to-cave for him, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said Monday.

President Bush said gains by anti-Taliban forces gave him encouragement that the military was closing in on bin Laden. “The noose is beginning to narrow,” Bush said.

The U.S. approach, at least for now, is to continue bombing suspected hide-outs while leaving it to local people to search on the ground, Rumsfeld said. He suggested a $25 million reward?plus extra bounty offered by the CIA?may prompt Afghans to “begin crawling through those tunnels and caves.”

If the job eventually falls to the U.S. military, it will require different kinds of forces than the special operations troops now in Afghanistan, the defense secretary said. He did not elaborate, but other officials have said the task might fall to an infantry unit like the Army’s 10th Mountain Division.

Speaking at a Pentagon news conference on the 44th day of U.S. bombing, Rumsfeld also said the United States would not let Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar escape from Kandahar, his southern stronghold now under siege, even if opposition groups negotiated a deal with him for free passage.

Rumsfeld was asked about reports that Omar is trying to negotiate a handover of power in Kandahar, the birthplace of the Taliban militia that has harbored bin Laden and his al Qaeda terrorist network.

“If the thrust of that question is would we knowingly allow him to get out of Kandahar, the answer is, ‘No, we would not,'” he said.

Rumsfeld said U.S. special forces in Afghanistan?now numbering several hundred?had not yet pursued any Taliban or al Qaeda leaders into neighboring Pakistan.

“If one of those folk that we particularly wanted was known” to be crossing a border, “we might have an early intensive consultation with the neighbors,” he added.

Likewise, in the other major pocket of Taliban and al Qaeda resistance, the northern city of Kunduz, the United States is trying to avoid any dealmaking that would allow enemy forces to escape, he said.

“The idea of their getting out of the country and going off to make their mischief somewhere else is not a happy prospect,” Rumsfeld said. “So my hope is that they will either be killed or taken prisoner.”

Senior administration officials in recent days have said bin Laden’s room to maneuver in Afghanistan is narrowing as opposition groups gain ground, but Rumsfeld on Monday stressed that the search is far from over.

“As enemy leaders become fewer and fewer, that does not necessarily mean that the task will become easier,” he said. “People can hide in caves for long periods, and this will take time.”

He denied reports that U.S. intelligence has defined a narrow search area for bin Laden.

“To try and think that we have them contained in some sort of a small area I think would be a misunderstanding of the difficulty of the task,” he said.

“If our military knew where Mr. bin Laden was, he would be brought to justice,” Bush said after a Cabinet meeting. Asked whether he had evidence that U.S. forces were closing in on bin Laden, Bush said, “It’s going to be hard to tell you that without compromising the search, except I can point to the map of Afghanistan, where more and more territory are now in friendly hands.”