US Request Let bin Laden Escape
Says Top Afghan Commander
By Steven Komarow

HERAT, Afghanistan - Osama bin Laden and his lieutenants would be dead or in custody if Northern Alliance fighters had continued to pursue the terrorist leader, one of this country's top commanders and regional powerbrokers claimed Sunday. Instead, said Ismail Khan, governor of Herat province and one of Afghanistan's most successful militia leaders, his troops and other Northern Alliance fighters held back at the request of the West.
The fighters did not push south of Herat and Kabul after taking those cities in mid-November and attack Kandahar, then the stronghold of the Taliban rulers who had given bin Laden safe haven.
Allies, including the United States, wanted Northern Alliance forces to give way to fighters commanded by ethnic Pashtun leaders from southern Afghanistan. In the delicate balancing act that is Afghan politics, allies feared that giving Northern Alliance forces too much territory might only lead to renewed factional battling later on.
Khan maintained, however, that "we could have captured all the Taliban and the al-Qaeda groups. We could have arrested Osama bin Laden with all of his supporters." That claim, aired during an interview with a small group of Western reporters, marked his strongest criticism yet of the Western- backed effort that led to the Taliban's toppling and installation of a interim government in Afghanistan earlier this month.
Bin Laden's whereabouts are a mystery. Khan said the Saudi terrorist is probably still in Afghanistan. "Osama bin Laden has to be in Afghanistan because (Taliban leader) Mullah Omar is here. He doesn't have any place else to go."
One possible hideout, some Afghan officials have said, is in the mountains northwest of Kandahar. Khan's forces, driving southeast from Herat toward Kandahar, might have reached that area if the U.S.-backed war had continued unabated. Instead, he said, the ethnic Tajik-dominated Northern Alliance was pressured to hold back and let anti-Taliban ethnic Pashtuns win the day there.
Pashtuns, who make up about 40% of the population, are Afghanistan's dominant ethnic group. Most Taliban members are Pashtun. A Pashtun, Hamid Karzai, heads the six-month interim administration.
If Northern Alliance troops had been allowed to push on and then hand over prisoners to Pashtun fighters, Khan said, time and momentum would not have been lost. Three weeks elapsed between the fall of Herat and Kabul and the fall of Kandahar. Now, he said, Afghanistan is saddled with "many Talib Afghans, the al-Qaeda group. And it might be dangerous for the future of Afghanistan."

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