- HERAT, Afghanistan - Osama
bin Laden and his lieutenants would be dead or in custody if Northern Alliance
fighters had continued to pursue the terrorist leader, one of this country's
top commanders and regional powerbrokers claimed Sunday. Instead, said
Ismail Khan, governor of Herat province and one of Afghanistan's most successful
militia leaders, his troops and other Northern Alliance fighters held back
at the request of the West.
- The fighters did not push south of Herat and Kabul after
taking those cities in mid-November and attack Kandahar, then the stronghold
of the Taliban rulers who had given bin Laden safe haven.
- Allies, including the United States, wanted Northern
Alliance forces to give way to fighters commanded by ethnic Pashtun leaders
from southern Afghanistan. In the delicate balancing act that is Afghan
politics, allies feared that giving Northern Alliance forces too much territory
might only lead to renewed factional battling later on.
- Khan maintained, however, that "we could have captured
all the Taliban and the al-Qaeda groups. We could have arrested Osama bin
Laden with all of his supporters." That claim, aired during an interview
with a small group of Western reporters, marked his strongest criticism
yet of the Western- backed effort that led to the Taliban's toppling and
installation of a interim government in Afghanistan earlier this month.
- Bin Laden's whereabouts are a mystery. Khan said the
Saudi terrorist is probably still in Afghanistan. "Osama bin Laden
has to be in Afghanistan because (Taliban leader) Mullah Omar is here.
He doesn't have any place else to go."
- One possible hideout, some Afghan officials have said,
is in the mountains northwest of Kandahar. Khan's forces, driving southeast
from Herat toward Kandahar, might have reached that area if the U.S.-backed
war had continued unabated. Instead, he said, the ethnic Tajik-dominated
Northern Alliance was pressured to hold back and let anti-Taliban ethnic
Pashtuns win the day there.
- Pashtuns, who make up about 40% of the population, are
Afghanistan's dominant ethnic group. Most Taliban members are Pashtun.
A Pashtun, Hamid Karzai, heads the six-month interim administration.
- If Northern Alliance troops had been allowed to push
on and then hand over prisoners to Pashtun fighters, Khan said, time and
momentum would not have been lost. Three weeks elapsed between the fall
of Herat and Kabul and the fall of Kandahar. Now, he said, Afghanistan
is saddled with "many Talib Afghans, the al-Qaeda group. And it might
be dangerous for the future of Afghanistan."