ISLAMABAD: US military efforts to find Osama bin
Laden have been stymied by poor intelligence, the prey's savvy evasive tactics
and one of the most daunting geographic and cultural terrains in the world,
according to intelligence and military officials across the region.
After nearly four weeks of intense aerial and electronic surveillance and
scattered bombing, bin Laden has avoided becoming the highly visible trophy
the Bush administration originally identified as the primary target --``dead
or alive'' --of its attacks in Afghanistan.
US intelligence efforts directed against bin Laden have been hobbled by the
lack of informed US operatives on the ground, and disarray and distrust within
Pakistan's intelligence service, the agency with the potential to know the
most about bin Laden's whereabouts, according to officials familiar with the
Intelligence officers and analysts said it could take the US months to develop
the intelligence on the ground needed to locate him. ``They need anti-Taliban
Afghanis on the ground. For that, they have to help build the anti-Taliban
movement in the south and it's going to take time and money and lots of
effort. It's not something you can do with US commanders and US bombs,'' said
Ahmed Rashid, an author who has written about the Taliban and traveled
extensively through Taliban-controlled Afghanistan in recent years.
Pakistani intelligence officials familiar with bin Laden's operations said he
usually relies on word of mouth and hand-carried written messages to issue
orders. Bin Laden also disguises his movements with decoy convoys, several
intelligence officials said. His entourages, they added, often blend in with
movements of Afghans, making it difficult for satellites or surveillance
aircraft to identify his activities.
An Aghan who recently fled to Pakistan said bin Laden has a large facility
deep under the hills near Kandahar. He said US aircraft have bombed the
facility numerous times, adding that he did not think it was heavily damaged
because of its depth under the hills. The veracity of such reports on bin
Laden's hideouts is difficult to assess or to confirm by technical
Pakistani intelligence officials said the US military was unlikely to collect
much useful information about bin Laden or the Taliban through Special Forces
raids on Taliban military sites, such as the one conducted at one of Omar's
compounds near Kandahar two weeks ago.
US officials said one of the objectives of that raid was to collect
intelligence from such sources as computer discs. But a Pakistani intelligence
officer who has worked with Taliban commanders said the Afghan movement --much
less the Al-Qaida network --keeps few organized files, documents or strategic
maps, instead planning most operations verbally or through scribbled notes
that are later destroyed.
Other officials noted that the Afghan terrain is so diverse -- with different
tribes and languages in various regions -- that intelligence operatives
require sources in specific locations to provide information on bin Laden's
whereabouts and the details needed to launch any military assault against his
``You have to have people from inside,'' said one Pakistani intelligence
official. ``You can't send someone to track Osama out of their own area. They
would be like a fish out of water.''
But ISI, the intelligence agency with the greatest potential to offer
assistance is immersed in internal turmoil. ``The events can force the
government to change its Afghan policy overnight, but successful intelligence
operations take years of secret groundwork,'' said one senior ISI official.
Pakistani intelligence officials complain that their best sources in
Afghanistan now consider the ISI traitors and are refusing to provide
information. Other Pakistani authorities note the ISI has never collected the
kind of intelligence needed to rout out bin Laden because it was not part of
the agency's mission.
According to Pakistani intelligence officials, bin Laden has stopped
communicating by satellite telephones or two-way radios to prevent US
eavesdropping equipment in satellites or planes from locating him. This has
been particularly true since the Clinton administration launched cruise
missile attacks on several of bin Laden's camps after the bombings of the US
embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998.
``Before the 1998 attacks, he communicated all over the world,'' said a former
Pakistani intelligence official who has maintained numerous contacts inside
Afghanistan. ``Since then, he doesn't even use a walkie-talkie.''