Elusive as ever

Pakistani President Musharraf admits the search for bin Laden is a failure as the U.S. offers a deal to the Taliban.

Published December 6, 2004 4:01PM (EST)

The hunt for Osama bin Laden has gone cold, reducing Pakistan's security forces to little more than guesswork, President Pervez Musharraf admitted at the weekend.

Speaking to reporters in Washington before flying to Britain Sunday, Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf blamed the U.S. for failing to send enough troops to neighboring Afghanistan. The admission confirmed the fear that Osama bin Laden is no closer to capture than when he fled the Tora Bora caves three years ago, probably across the border into Pakistan.

"We don't know where he is. He might be anywhere," Musharraf told CNN, adding that Pakistan had posted thousands of troops along the mountainous border. "Is that the same on the other side? No, it is not. Where would he feel safer?" he said.

In Afghanistan, an amnesty offer to bin Laden's erstwhile allies the Taliban suggested they were in a far weaker position. The U.S. military commander in Afghanistan, Lt. Gen. David Barno, said Sunday that as few as 100 Taliban leaders would be prosecuted as "criminals" and thousands of lower-level insurgents would be pardoned and allowed to return home. If successful, the strategy would enable the U.S. to reduce its 18,000-strong force as early as next summer, he hinted.

The amnesty offer was made on the eve of Hamid Karzai's inauguration as Afghan president on Monday. It is one of several shifts in the cross-border war on al-Qaida and the Taliban.

Although failing to find bin Laden, Musharraf's forces have killed hundreds of other al-Qaida militants in Pakistan this year, earning him warm praise from President Bush at the White House on Saturday. Bush said he was "very pleased" with Pakistan's efforts, adding that its army has "been incredibly active and very brave."

Musharraf said he had pressed Bush to increase his efforts to solve the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, which he described as key to defusing tension in the Islamic world. "This is the source of all problems," he said, adding that Bush now appeared "more focused and serious" on the issue. Musharraf is due to meet Tony Blair Monday for discussions on terrorism, trade, Afghanistan and Kashmir.

Pakistan has proved a crucial but often difficult ally of the West in the "war on terror." Britain and the U.S. are unhappy with Musharraf's refusal to allow direct access to Abdul Qadeer Khan, the scientist who earlier this year admitted supplying nuclear secrets to Libya, Iran and North Korea. Musharraf told the Washington Post that he would not allow any outsider to interview Khan.

"It's a very sensitive issue inside Pakistan. The man has been a hero for the masses." He said he would be insulted by a request to interview Khan. "It shows a lack of trust."

The U.S. has had greater success securing Pakistani promises of help in the hunt for the Taliban. Although Pakistan has been long accused of turning a blind eye to militants sheltering inside its northern border, Pakistan and Afghanistan have now agreed to jointly draw up a list of wanted Taliban hiding in Pakistan, Gen. Barno said Sunday.

"I think in the very near future we'll see both countries moving forward to look to arrest and bring to justice those individuals," he told the Associated Press. Meanwhile, U.S. soldiers will start a register of Taliban foot soldiers willing to return home peacefully, provided they take part in an as yet unannounced reconciliation process. "If it works, I think that there will be a significant number of people following it up," the general said. A "significant reconciliation" could prompt a troop review by summer, he added.

The U.S. amnesty is based on analysis that the Taliban are demoralized and divided after their failure to halt the presidential election in October. But so far there is little evidence that they will accept the offer. One Taliban spokesman has already rejected a similar olive branch from the U.S. ambassador.

By David Heather

MORE FROM David Heather

By Declan Walsh

MORE FROM Declan Walsh

Related Topics ------------------------------------------