BAGRAM, Afghanistan – The U.S. commander in Afghanistan is calling for coordinated border patrols by Pakistan and U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan to cut off escape routes for terrorists.
"We hope they (Pakistan) will put more troops operating in the field and join us in running complementary operations on our respective sides of the border," Lt. Gen. Daniel K. McNeill told The Associated Press in an interview.
Better coordination would help tighten the noose on Al Qaeda leader Usama bin Laden and help stop other terrorists from escaping across the border, McNeill said.
McNeill indicated the 23-nation coalition force could scale back its presence in Afghanistan by July 2004, when Afghanistan is due to elect a government to replace the interim administration of President Hamid Karzai.
By that time, the general said, the core of Afghanistan's new national army should have reached its full size. U.S., British and French forces have trained about 3,000 soldiers so far, and will continue to train an additional 800 men every five weeks.
Coalition forces will stay in Afghanistan at least until the elections and some countries will likely stay on after negotiating military cooperation agreements with the newly elected government, he said.
McNeill's prediction for phasing down by mid-2004 may be optimistic, however, in view of the difficulties Karzai's government has faced so far in fashioning a cohesive force from the factional fighters who have dominated Afghanistan for decades.
McNeill spoke inside the U.S. headquarters for the war in Afghanistan at Bagram Air Base, from where he commands a multinational force of 11,500 troops.
On Wednesday, a U.S. warplane supporting Afghan allies mistakenly bombed a house, killing 11 civilians, while pursuing attackers who had earlier fought with Pakistani soldiers at the border. McNeill said the incident was "very tragic."
He said the coalition was taking the fight to the former Afghan rulers, Taliban, as well as Al Qaeda.
"We're on the offensive and we're going to stay on the offensive," he said. "We're not allowing them the opportunity to hunker down in any one place and establish themselves."
About 8,500 U.S. troops form the backbone of the coalition force in Afghanistan.
He praised the Pakistani efforts, saying they had captured some 450 terrorists, including high-ranking Taliban and Al Qaeda members.
As for hunting down the Al Qaeda leaders responsible for the Sept. 11 attacks, McNeill said he doesn't know whether bin Laden is dead or alive. However, the former head of the Taliban regime, Mullah Omar, has slipped in and out of Afghanistan on more than one occasion, he said.
"Some very senior Afghan leaders tell me that if Mullah Omar walked in the room, they wouldn't know who he was unless somebody told them," McNeill said. "He's almost like a ghost."
"I can tell he's probably moving around a bit," said looking out into the war room. "But if he goes in the areas where he used to find sanctuary, he will now find coalition forces."