MACDILL AIR FORCE BASE, Fla. – Pakistan has agreed to allow U.S. troops in Afghanistan to cross the border in pursuit of fugitive Al Qaida or Taliban leaders, the American commander of the war says.
Gen. Tommy Franks, speaking Monday at his Central Command headquarters, told The Associated Press that in some cases the Pakistani military should pursue such targets, as they already have with some success.
"Or, on the other hand, we could contact them and say all right, we are observing people and we are going to follow them into Pakistan. I think arrangements are in place to be able to do either of those," the four-star Army general said in an hour-long interview in his office.
An undisclosed number of U.S. special forces soldiers are in Pakistan to coordinate with the army there, he said.
Franks credited Pakistan with having gone to extraordinary lengths to support the U.S. campaign to hunt down and capture or kill Usama bin Laden and his top lieutenants, even as tensions with India have grown. At one time the Pakistani army had 50,000 troops on the Afghan border to intercept fleeing Taliban or Al Qaida fighters, Franks said. He did not say how many remain.
On the 93rd day of the U.S.-led military campaign, Franks spoke confidently of eventually finding bin Laden, his chief Al Qaida collaborators and top officials of the Taliban militia that supported the terrorists. He said the interim Afghan government, headed by Hamid Karzai, shares U.S. anti-terrorist aims and has been fully cooperative since taking office in December.
Franks said he speaks regularly to Karzai and intends to visit him in Afghanistan within a few weeks.
As has been his custom, Franks declined to discuss specifics about the future direction of the war in Afghanistan, except to say it would continue as long as it takes to find bin Laden, the No. 1 suspect in the Sept. 11 terror attacks, and other key targets. He did not rule out putting more U.S. ground troops into Afghanistan.
He said the lengthy search of caves in Afghanistan's Tora Bora region failed to find bin Laden but yielded evidence that he was once holed up there with Taliban supporters. The search in that area is now ending, he said.
"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 Qaida 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 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 December to rout Al Qaida fighters from their final stronghold.
Franks said he intended to stick to his approach of coordinating with local Afghan tribal forces to provide intelligence, rather than respond to critics who say he is moving too slowly.
"I'm not interested in acceleration; I'm interested in continuation — focus, to get us where we want to go," Franks said.
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.