The Washington Post

Paul Wong
A northern alliance soldier watches U.S. airstrikes pound Taliban front lines in Kunduz province near the town of Khanabad yesterday.<br><br>AP PHOTO

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said yesterday that the Pentagon is counting on Afghan opposition groups to play a central role in finding Osama bin Laden, noting that the hundreds of U.S. Special Forces troops operating inside Afghanistan are not sufficient to search “cave to cave” for the reputed terrorist leader.

Rumsfeld said that a $25 million reward for bin Laden”s capture should provide an incentive to leaders of Pashtun tribal groups to help locate the leader of the al Qaida network. But he dismissed speculation that bin Laden and other senior al Qaeda and Taliban leaders have been forced into a “small area” within southern Afghanistan.

Rumsfeld”s comments signaled that the 45-day-old war in Afghanistan could be entering a far more deliberate stage focused on finding a relatively small number of senior leaders after weeks of heavy U.S. bombing and last week”s dramatic advances across more than two-thirds of Afghanistan by the Northern Alliance and other opposition groups.

“As enemy leaders become fewer and fewer, it does not necessarily mean that the task will become easier,” the defense secretary told reporters at the Pentagon. “People can hide in caves for long periods, and this will take time.”

In Afghanistan yesterday, U.S. warplanes and Northern Alliance ground forces combined to attack Taliban positions around Kunduz, the last Taliban-held city in the north. After several days of calm while the alliance attempted to secure the Taliban”s surrender, opposition fighters used tanks, artillery and a multiple rocket launcher to hammer the Taliban in the hills around the city.

American jets supported the attacks, dropping bombs on Taliban targets. But the Taliban force there still had not surrendered after being surrounded for a week.

In Kandahar, the Taliban”s southern power center, tribal leaders of the dominant Pashtun ethnic group were still trying to negotiate a transfer of power. But Taliban leader Mohammad Omar vowed not to surrender power, even as dozens of U.S. warplanes flew overhead looking for what Pentagon officials called “targets of opportunity.”

On the diplomatic front, negotiations continued between the United Nations and the Northern Alliance, a loose coalition of rebel groups that drove the Taliban from the capital city of Kabul a week ago.

The alliance is under pressure not to declare itself Afghanistan”s new government. It has yet to formally accept an invitation to U.N.-backed talks on a political solution. But James Dobbins, the Bush administration”s special envoy, said after meeting with alliance officials that the talks could be held by the end of this week, probably in Germany.

Speaking to reporters after a three-hour session with alliance leaders at Bagram air base, 35 miles north of Kabul, Dobbins said the only unresolved aspect of the proposed political conference was the size of factional delegations to the talks, which would aim at establishing a post-Taliban interim government.

The apparent progress came one day after the Northern Alliance abandoned its insistence on holding the conference in Kabul, where it controls the levers of power. The alliance”s foreign minister, Abdullah, said Sunday that proposed venues in Austria, Germany or Switzerland were acceptable Dobbins said yesterday that “the Germans have offered to host it.”

At the Pentagon, Rumseld indicated that U.S. forces had no immediate plan to start actively searching for bin Laden in remote mountain caves and tunnel complexes. “That would probably require somewhat different types of forces,” he said.

His comments closely followed those of President Bush, who told reporters after a Cabinet meeting that the “noose is beginning to narrow” around bin Laden, Omar and other senior leaders. But, Bush added, “I”ve told the American people right from the get-go of this effort, it may take a month, it may take a year, or however long it takes, we”ll succeed.”

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