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Afghans brace for attack

If the United States decides to retaliate against Afghanistan, it will find a wide array of targets.

©Associated Press

© St. Petersburg Times,
published September 15, 2001


JALALABAD, Afghanistan -- Agha Gul, a businessman familiar with this part of eastern Afghanistan, pointed to an arid outcropping over a thick stand of trees. "The Arabs are over there, hundreds of them," he said. "That's one of Osama's big camps."

The Arabs are the fighters who serve Osama bin Laden, the man U.S. officials say is the likeliest suspect behind Tuesday's attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon. The village Gul was pointing to was Darunta, 5 miles west of the ancient city of Jalalabad astride the Khyber Pass, and one of several potential targets for U.S. retaliation.

Anxious not to draw any fire, Afghans living in and around Jalalabad insist that the Arabs, who until a few days ago roamed freely through the marketplace, have hardly been seen since Tuesday.

The Arabs originally came to Afghanistan to aid the fight against Soviet invasion in the 1980s and stayed on to back the Taleban militia in civil war and Islamic revolution. Their camps today are off-limits to foreigners, so it's difficult to verify their size and capabilities. But their presence is considered an important prop for the Taleban in its war against rebels who control about 5 percent of the mountainous country.

After 20 years of fighting, the country is in ruins and Afghans tend to be fatalistic about the threat of U.S. attack.

"Everyone is frightened. We know the Arabs are our neighbors, but what can we do?" said Asim Jan, a cobbler.

Another target for attack is a farm 12 miles south of Jalalabad owned by former insurgent leader Maulvi Younus Khalis, where hundreds of Arabs are bivouacked. Four eastern provinces are believed to have bin Laden bases. A senior Taleban official has told the Associated Press that there are training camps in every province.

Then there is Jalalabad's airport. Last year its manager related that a close bin Laden aide who identified himself as "Mr. Mauritania" had come through the airport carrying two gym bags loaded with Saudi currency, and six pistols that he said were for his own use. The manager, who gave his name as Abdullah, said "Mr. Mauritania" carried a card from the Taleban authorities ordering airport officials to let him pass through unhindered.

Seventy-five miles west of Jalalabad lies the capital, Kabul, and its Taleban garrisons that could be targets of retaliation.

The Taleban insist bin Laden hasn't the wherewithal to have executed Tuesday's horror. They say they aren't preparing for a U.S. attack because they have done nothing to deserve one.

But late Friday they made a surprise administrative shuffle, replacing the governors of Afghanistan's border provinces with new men from their inner circle. No reason was given.

Kabul has also seen an Arab exodus. According to Gulzar, a cab driver, most of the Arabs have headed to Misan-e-Logar, about 60 miles outside Kabul, where an estimated 400 houses of Arab nationals, apparently affiliated with bin Laden, are located.

"I know because I have driven them there before. But now it's not safe," he said. Two Arabs offered him $30 to take them to Misan-e-Logar, he said, "but I refused. It's too dangerous."

Gulzar, who uses only one name, said most Afghans want bin Laden and his followers to leave.

"If Osama leaves Afghanistan everyone would live in peace," he said. "People are poor here. They have no money, no food, nothing. They don't want Osama. They want peace."

If the Bush administration undertakes a sustained military campaign against terrorist groups, the United States also might target suspected bin Laden operations in Sudan or Algeria.

Even Pakistan, America's on-and-off ally, is thought to harbor bin Laden training camps along its largely uncontrolled border with Afghanistan. The United States will want to remove those, either by itself or with Pakistan's cooperation, according to the Associated Press, citing a senior U.S. official who spoke Friday on condition of anonymity.

Beyond that, Iraq could be another target if the United States were to decide to go after not just bin Laden's network but other nations that support terrorists, the official said.

Such a widely arrayed list of targets raises numerous problems, administration officials and foreign policy experts say. It may be difficult to hit elusive terrorists hidden in remote mountain caves, if they're even still there. The United States also runs the risk of angering countries that it doesn't want to anger, because their support might prove vital.

The president is planning a campaign against terrorist groups that could last several years, a senior White House official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Secretary of State Colin Powell reaffirmed Friday that the United States will take aim not only at the terrorists responsible for Tuesday's twin attacks in New York and Washington, but at the countries behind them. The idea will be to "rip that network up," Powell said earlier. "And when we are through with that network, we will continue with a global assault against terrorism in general."

Overall, bin Laden is thought to have followers or operations in 34 countries, according to a Congressional Research Service study. They include Egypt, Jordan, Yemen, Libya, Lebanon, Tajikistan, Somalia, Kenya, Ethiopia, Kosovo, the Philippines, even Britain, Canada and the United States.

The administration would not always use "blunt force military," Powell said. "It may be that diplomatic efforts, political efforts, legal, financial, other efforts may be just as effective against that kind of an enemy."

Camps in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Sudan and Algeria are the most likely military targets because they are considered the most active in bin Laden's loose network, the U.S. official said.

And what if a country close to the United States, such as Egypt, were found to have harbored bin Laden associates? asked Phil Coyle, a former top Pentagon planner. That could cause "a real dilemma," he said.

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