BAGRAM, Afghanistan – The United States may be forced to change tactics in the war on terror if Pakistan pulls out of the search for Al Qaeda and Taliban fighters along its Afghan border, the new American general in charge of the campaign said Friday.
Lt. Gen. Dan K. McNeill said enemy fighters will find plenty of refuge in Pakistan's western tribal region if Pakistan shifts its troops away from the Afghan border.
Pakistan has said it will redeploy its soldiers from the border because of the nuclear-tinged threat of war with India.
The redeployment of what would likely be only a few thousand men would have virtually no impact on the balance of power with India, but could deeply affect the U.S.-led war against terrorism.
"We will determine what it means to us, if indeed there are withdrawals," McNeill said in an interview with The Associated Press. "And if we need to make adjustments because of anything that's occurred in Pakistan, we will do so."
Many Al Qaeda and Taliban leaders are thought to be on the Pakistani side of the rugged mountains that divide the countries. Those left in Afghanistan are avoiding battles, melting into the population, hiding in the mountains and moving back and forth across the porous border.
McNeill has avoided commenting on the possibility of the United States expanding its search in western Pakistan, where some American special forces have worked in past months.
McNeill, head of the 18th Airborne Corps, only recently took control of the U.S. military mission, and will run all aspects of the campaign and report directly to Florida-based U.S. Central Command. His arrival means the command at Bagram — a former Soviet air base in a valley north of Kabul — is now the headquarters for U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan.
McNeill's predecessor, Maj. Gen. Franklin L. Hagenbeck, worked through the U.S. base in Kuwait. The change "does not mean or represent an escalation," McNeill said. "It simply represents a maturing of the theater and an action to streamline the chain of command."
British troops have made four major sweeps for Al Qaeda and the Taliban in the southeast region of Khost near the Pakistani border since March, without finding any fighters. The most recent British search, Operation Buzzard, was launched this week.
U.S. special forces have been searching in smaller groups in several border provinces. But whether they have been any more successful in finding hidden fighters is unclear.
They have uncovered weapons caches and "items of intelligence value," McNeill said. Asked if they have found Al Qaeda or Taliban fighters, he said, "They probably have," but he could not give any numbers.
So far, the special forces' hunt remains for now the best way to deal with an "elusive enemy," unlikely to make themselves a target by massing in large groups, McNeill said.
"It requires almost detective-like work to amass many clues, to sift through these clues for what's good and what's not, to piece them together and act on those clues," he said.
McNeill would not say how many Al Qaeda or Taliban fighters were thought to still be in Afghanistan. Hagenbeck has said virtually all the top leaders and 100 to 1,000 fighters are in Pakistan.
Identifying the enemy is made even more difficult because the regions along the border are also rife with warlords, each with their own armed fighters.
Friday saw an example of the difficulty of recognizing the enemy, when U.S. special forces closing in on a compound near the southeast town of Gardez got in a pre-dawn firefight with a group of armed men, killing three and wounding two. The identity of the men was not known, U.S. Col. Roger King said.
Further south, other U.S. soldiers were fired on by four rockets, which exploded less than a mile away. The soldiers and U.S. warplanes fired at men they suspected of launching the rockets, but it was not known if any were killed.
Another target of U.S. interest is maverick warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who is accused of seeking to kill U.S. soldiers and undermine the interim Afghan government. Coalition commanders have said he could help Al Qaeda in regaining its foothold in Afghanistan.
McNeill would not say if his forces were actively hunting for Hekmatyar.
"Given the fact that he may or may not be associated with those who seek to destroy us, I would say that I'll keep eye on him," he said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.