MACDILL AIR FORCE BASE, Fla. – The weeks-long search of caves in Afghanistan's Tora Bora region found evidence that Usama bin Laden had been there with Taliban supporters but provided no clue to his current whereabouts, the U.S. war commander Gen. Tommy Franks said Monday.
In an Associated Press interview at Central Command headquarters, Franks said the search at Tora Bora — once thought a promising path to bin Laden's capture — was ending.
"We'll have that pretty well cleared and be out of there in the next day or so," Franks said.
Some U.S. special forces soldiers will remain in the mountainous Tora Bora area to "sweep" villages for potential intelligence and to act as liaisons with local tribal elders, he said.
He also said that in the next day or two the U.S. military would gain custody of one or two Taliban or Al Qaeda figures of great interest to the United States. He would not elaborate.
Franks said the Tora Bora search focused on eight main cave complexes. It provided evidence that bin Laden and high-level officials of the Taliban militia that supported him for five years had been in the area "at one point or another," he said.
Indeed, Franks indicated they had been there relatively recently, but he said he could not confirm reports that bin Laden had slipped away just before Afghan tribal forces and U.S. special operations troops arrived in early December to rout Al Qaeda fighters from their final stronghold.
The Army four-star general said he was convinced that he took the right approach in searching the Tora Bora area — choosing not to send large numbers of U.S. ground forces — even though the effort is ending with no clear clues to where bin Laden may be hiding.
Franks said he would not rule out sending larger numbers of ground troops into Afghanistan at some point but intended to stick to his approach of coordinating with local Afghan tribal forces to provide intelligence on the whereabouts of bin Laden and his top lieutenants.
"I'm not interested in acceleration; I'm interested in continuation — focus, to get us where we want to go," Franks said in an hourlong interview.
Continuing with the current approach also means keeping U.S. bombers and attack aircraft in the skies over Afghanistan daily so that timely intelligence on the ground can be acted upon, he said.
Franks, a tall Texan who began his Army career in the 1960s as an artillery officer and fought in Vietnam, was assistant commander of the 1st Cavalry Division during the 1991 Gulf War. He commands the war in Afghanistan from MacDill Air Force Base at the tip of a peninsula in Tampa Bay.
Although Tampa is a long way from Afghanistan, Franks keeps touches of Central Asia at his finger tips. Along one side of his office is a collection of colorful tribal wedding robes — the one from Kyrgyzstan is bright purple with gold trim. On another wall is a polished silver sword from Pakistan. Down the hall is a small room where Franks can communicate by videoteleconference with his commanders in the field and view the positions of U.S. forces.
Franks said he remained confident that the U.S. military eventually will get bin Laden and other top terrorist targets in Afghanistan, as well as Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar and his top deputies. In the meantime he reserved judgment on whether bin Laden remains in hiding inside Afghanistan or — as some members of Congress have speculated — has fled to Pakistan.
"At this point I've not been persuaded that we know that to be a fact," he said, referring to comments on Sunday by Sen. John Edwards, D-N.C., and others who took a fact-finding trip to Central Asia. The senators said intelligence indicates that bin Laden has fled Afghanistan.
"Our intelligence people, from a national perspective, look at literally hundreds of reports every day," Franks said. "And what we try to do, before we characterize them as believable, is have something that sort of substantiates what we think."
In addition to working with Afghan tribal forces on the ground and conducting occasional airstrikes on pockets of Al Qaeda or Taliban holdouts, the United States is relying on Pakistan to capture those who might slip across the border.
Franks said the U.S. arrangement with Pakistan would allow U.S. forces to cross into Pakistan from Afghanistan if the United States believed it had pinpointed top Al Qaeda or Taliban leaders there.
Some U.S. special operations troops are already inside Pakistan working with Pakistani authorities, he said.