Catching bin Laden not biggest priority now

KABUL, Afghanistan - For a time, the U.S. military in Afghanistan was talking as if it would smoke Osama bin Laden out of a cave on the rocky Pakistan border within months, perhaps even ahead of President Bush's re-election.

Now, American commanders say protecting the country's fragile new democracy, reviving its economy and keeping Taliban militants on the run are the priorities, though tracking the cold trail of bin Laden and other al-Qaida leaders remains the focus of intelligence efforts.

Spies, informers, electronic listening devices and surveillance from the air all belong to the U.S. arsenal. However, American officials acknowledge that videotapes featuring a sprightly looking bin Laden - released days before the Nov. 2 election in the United States - and his deputy Ayman al-Zawahri, have yielded no clues to their whereabouts, even though one was delivered to a TV channel in Islamabad.

"They're pretty sterile in terms of intelligence value," Maj. Gen. Eric Olson, the operational commander of U.S. forces here, told The Associated Press.

Despite initial high expectations on the other side of the border, Pakistan's yearlong crackdown against foreign militants near the tribal town of Wana also has yielded no trace of bin Laden or al-Zawahri.

"We have no specific indication that they are in the Wana area or really any other location" in the region, Olson said. "But the hunt goes on."

American generals have had three years to rue how the suspected mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks slipped away from Afghan and U.S. troops near the Tora Bora caves of Afghanistan's eastern mountains as the regime of his Taliban protectors crumbled that December.

French Defense Minister Michele Alliot-Marie, who has special forces patrolling farther south, claimed last month that bin Laden narrowly escaped an American operation as recently as mid-2003. But there is no firm evidence anyone has picked up his trail since.


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