KABUL, Afghanistan – Deploying large numbers of U.S. ground forces would not have increased the chances of capturing Usama bin Laden or Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar, the top commander of the war in Afghanistan said Saturday.
An intense hunt for the two men has been fruitless since Afghan opposition forces, backed up by small numbers of American troops and heavy air strikes, defeated the radical Islamic Taliban regime in November.
The United States is wary of repeating the mistakes of the Soviet Union in the 1980s, when the presence of a large foreign occupying force spawned much Afghan resistance, said Gen. Tommy Franks, commander of the U.S.-led coalition forces, at a news conference in Pakistan.
U.S. special forces have been working with Afghan allies in the rugged countryside since the Taliban were toppled, pursuing leads on bin Laden and Omar but with no results.
Franks said he did not know the whereabouts of either man.
"The tactics in this operation were just the right tactics," Franks told a news conference in Islamabad, capital of neighboring Pakistan, a pivotal U.S. ally in the war.
"One does not want to commit mistakes that have been committed by other people in the past," Franks said. "I believe one does want to cooperate with cooperative allies in pursuit of military objectives."
Finding bin Laden and his ally, Omar, is important, Franks said, but preventing new acts of terrorism is the highest priority of intelligence experts sifting through prisoner interrogation reports and materials seized in caves and safe houses.
In one of the few highly secret special forces operations to come to public attention, about 15 Taliban fighters were killed and 27 prisoners taken Wednesday in a nighttime attack north of the southern city of Kandahar. One U.S. soldier was wounded in the ankle.
The attacked compounds were originally thought to be a hideout for Al Qaeda, the terror network created by bin Laden and blamed for the Sept. 11 attacks in the United States. But Pentagon officials have said since that they appeared to be storage sites for munitions and were occupied mainly by Taliban fighters.
Prime Minister Hamid Karzai was to leave Kabul for the United States on Saturday, a day after saying that many Afghans want international peacekeepers to expand their mission to volatile provinces where warlords hold sway.
But any move to expand the mandate of the British-led peacekeeping force is likely to draw strong opposition, not only from regional warlords but members of Karzai's own administration.
Noting that Karzai faces an uphill task to impose stability, the United States has indicated that U.S. troops — which operate separately from the peacekeepers — will stay in Afghanistan at least until mid-year, when a grand council, or loya jirga, is to choose a new government.
In Washington, Karzai will meet President Bush, seeking to cement ties with the administration and Congress, and receive assurances that the United States will make a long-term commitment to his country.
Secretary of State Colin Powell said Friday that the United States can be counted on "as long as it takes" to rebuild Afghanistan. He said the United States did not eliminate "the curse" of Al Qaeda and the Taliban only to abandon the country now.
Franks said he has no plans to move American troops operating from neighboring Pakistan because of military tensions between Pakistan and India. The rival nuclear powers went on war footing after an attack on the Indian Parliament that India blames on Pakistan-based militants.
"I'm hopeful that this crisis will be defused," Franks said. "I have not and I will not move our forces away from Pakistan."
Assessing Afghanistan's needs, the head of the U.S. Agency for International Development visited a village Saturday outside Kabul. Villagers told Andrew Natsios that a top priority was improving education.
Security is an overriding concern for Afghans struggling to survive in a country devastated by 23 years of war and harsh Taliban rule.
A peacekeeping force that will eventually total about 5,000 troops is confined to Kabul under the U.N.-brokered agreement last month that installed Karzai's government. Warlords in the provinces have voiced loyalty to Kabul, but old feuds simmer.
Some key government figures, especially ethnic Tajiks who fought the Taliban, want to limit peacekeepers to protecting public facilities in Kabul.
U.N. Secretary Kofi Annan, during a visit Friday, avoided answering whether the United Nations would support a broader mandate, which would require approval of the U.N. Security Council.
Instead, Annan said that he and Karzai had discussed the "urgent formation" of an Afghan police force and army.
However, the United Nations' outgoing deputy special envoy to Afghanistan, Francesc Vendrell, has warned that without a more widely deployed peacekeeping force, Afghanistan could slide back into chaotic fighting. Vendrell said 30,000 troops could be needed.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.