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Associated Press January 2, 2002

U.S., Afghan allies have differing goals


WASHINGTON (January 2, 2002 8:03 p.m. EST) - The goal is clear for the United States: find Osama bin Laden and Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar and end the al-Qaida terror network.

But the Afghan allies have other, competing goals, including gaining power for the future and settling old feuds. That is causing uneasiness about who can be trusted, as the United States sends money and weapons to tribal chiefs it needs in the hunt.

Among the worries facing U.S. officials are that local leaders might manipulate the American military to attack personal enemies, that efforts to gain Omar's surrender could again backfire, or that the search for bin Laden could stall.

Asked Wednesday about a report that one Afghan chief recently fed the U.S. military incorrect targeting information so U.S. bombs would hit a rival, Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. John Stufflebeem said he believes that is untrue. But he acknowledged it is a "priority" to avoid such a situation.

"Our special operating forces on the ground and other government agencies work very hard to prevent that from happening," Stufflebeem said.

There is no way to guarantee such a thing won't happen, said John Pike, a defense analyst at Globalsecurity.org in Washington. U.S. forces are depending on information from local, highly factionalized Afghans to choose some bombing targets, Pike said.

"On some level, you're basically just relying on somebody else's say-so as to what the political allegiance of a particular person or a particular group of people is," Pike said.

Even the goals of new Afghan interim prime minister Hamid Karzai differ somewhat from America's. For example, the United States insists it wants control of Omar, which could put Karzai in a tricky situation if Omar surrendered to a local leader who promised him a local trial.

Despite such differences, the United States has worked to solidify Karzai's government to avoid the infighting and chaos that have hit Afghanistan before. He, in turn, supports the U.S. campaign to get bin Laden and Omar.

The danger of depending on Afghans as America's eyes and ears - and muscle - has been apparent since the war began.

Pentagon officials insist that so far the cooperation is good and success in Afghanistan is coming faster than they had dreamed possible.

Critics, on the other hand, point out that the last time tribal leaders engaged in surrender talks with Omar, he slipped away from his former stronghold of Kandahar, along with virtually the entire Taliban leadership.

Clearly, the United States could lessen its dependence on Afghans by sending in more U.S. troops and probably finish the job faster, most analysts say.

Instead, U.S. officials have chosen a plan that minimizes American troop deaths and helps to stabilize Afghanistan.

"The United States certainly has enough guys with guns that we could have grabbed Omar a month ago," Pike said. "But we would probably have killed enough people in the process that it would have sparked off civil unrest."

Likewise, U.S. special forces continue to advise and help Afghans looking for bin Laden around the Tora Bora region. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld was asked recently if the task would go faster if more U.S. troops were sent. He said the plan from the beginning has been to depend mostly on Afghans, and that has not changed.

America is sending money, weapons or cold-weather gear - whatever the Afghans prefer - as their incentive to keep searching, said Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

"All that is being worked to solicit their cooperation," Myers said.

On Omar, Stufflebeem said he doubts the former Taliban leader is negotiating to give up, even though a commander for the Kandahar intelligence chief says Afghan military leaders have been negotiating indirectly with him for two days.

But U.S. officials "still have relatively few eyes and ears on the ground, so we deal with the best information we have," said Pentagon spokeswoman Victoria Clarke.

America will demand control over Omar if he surrenders or is captured, Clarke said. "From what we have seen from reports from the interim government, from anti-Taliban forces, they understand," she said.

Copyright 2002 AP Online