President George Bush has ordered a new offensive to capture or kill Osama bin Laden, having apparently secured the support of Pakistan to allow American troops to operate inside its borders.
Reports yesterday said the anti-terrorism special forces group that was involved in the capture of Saddam Hussein, Task Force 121, and the CIA will head the operation this spring. Special forces troops have already been moved from Iraq to Afghanistan, where they have been briefed on the mission.
"We're trying to transplant some of the lessons of the Saddam capture," an American official told The New York Times. "This is different territory and our targets are presumed to be moving around. But one lesson we learned in Iraq is that, by analogy, there are only a limited number of places that someone like Saddam Hussein and Bin Laden feel comfortable."
Officials suggested that a crucial development in the new operation was the position of the Pakistani President, Pervez Musharraf, who has been extremely reluctant to allow US troops to base themselves in Pakistan. Officials said that following the visit by the CIA's director, George Tenet, to Pakistan last month, General Musharraf appeared more committed to the capture of Bin Laden and the Taliban's leader, Mullah Omar.
It may be that the US has reached a deal using the recent disclosure over Pakistan's secret supply of nuclear technology to Iran, Libya and North Korea as a bargaining chip. The New Yorker magazine reported that Washington had struck a deal that would allow its troops to operate inside Pakistan in exchange for its support of the pardon General Musharraf gave to Abdul Qadeer Khan, the scientist who last month admitted leaking the nuclear secrets.
The full disclosure of Dr Khan's activities would have exposed him as "the worst nuclear-arms proliferator in the world", an intelligence official told the magazine. "Musharraf told us: 'We've got guys inside. The people who provide fresh fruits and vegetables and herd the goats' for Bin Laden and his al-Qa'ida followers'." A former intelligence official said: "It's a quid pro quo. We're going to get our troops inside Pakistan in return for not forcing Musharraf to deal with Khan."
Instead of carrying out raids and then returning to their bases, some of the 11,000 US soldiers will stay in the Afghan villages for days. They hope this will help them gather more intelligence.
Officials say there has been an increase in the amount of intelligence received about Bin Laden. "The volume of intelligence is increasing as we get more forces out there," a Pentagon official said .
Much of the timing is driven by the weather. As snow melts troops will be able to operate more easily in the mountains where many al-Qa'ida and Taliban fighters are believed to be hiding. At this time last year, many of the forces and intelligence operatives were involved in the operation to oust Saddam.Reuse content