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Last Updated: Monday, 11 September 2006, 12:45 GMT 13:45 UK
Afghanistan five years after 9/11
By Paul Danahar
BBC South Asia bureau chief, with Bilal Sarwary

"If you're chasing the chicken around the chicken yard and you don't have him yet and the question is, 'how close are you?' the answer is, 'it's tough to characterise because there's lots of zigs and zags.'"

Taleban fighters in 2001
Five years on the Taleban are back with a vengeance
The words of the US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld just weeks after the 11 September attacks when asked how close his government was to catching Osama Bin Laden.

Five years on the al-Qaeda chief has proven to be pretty effective on the zig-zag front.

And it is the US army's obsessive chase around the Afghan chicken yard that many in the leadership of both Nato and the government in Kabul believe allowed for the resurgence of the Taleban and the violence that has ensued.

The US defence secretary is famously dismissive of hindsight.

But from day one, followers of Afghanistan warned the US what would happen if security was not brought to the people of the southern provinces. Along with those cautions were the lessons of history.

Safer then

Mullah Omar and his band of armed illiterates first emerged in 1994 from within the frustrated Pashtun community to fill the law and order vacuum created by the internecine fighting of the Afghan warlords after the Soviets were driven out.

Donald Rumsfeld
Mr Rumsfeld - hunt for Bin Laden 'hard to characterise'
Whatever their critics say, the Taleban did make southern Afghanistan a lot safer for ordinary people than it is now.

Five years ago when the Taleban were driven out and the old regional warlords came back, so did a lot of robbery, rape and murder.

Senior Afghan officials believe security, or the lack of it for local people, undermined the initial support for the coalition forces, and helped push too many into the arms of the Taleban.

There might have been a decent debate to have over whether or not Bin Laden's capture was more important than securing the south if he had actually been caught.

But the relentless attempts to "smoke out' the al-Qaeda chief have failed. Why? The reason is mainly geography.

Secret documents

The Americans have done no worse at chasing down their enemies than the Soviets did in southern Afghanistan two decades earlier.

Like the Russians, the Americans have had to put up with their most-wanted men skipping across the border into Pakistan to avoid capture.

Osama bin Laden
Osama bin Laden - his organisation has been transformed
We know this because, unfortunately for the US intelligence agencies, a flash disk containing a number of their top secret documents was lost and turned up for sale in a bazaar near the US airbase at Bagram. The disk, which has been seen by the BBC, contains a long list of wanted men, their believed whereabouts and their links to Bin laden.

It also shows that the American intelligence agencies believe that over the years many of the people who might lead them to Bin Laden, like Mullah Omar or the Hezb-e-Islami leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, have often been hiding out in Pakistan.

If Osama Bin Laden has stayed in Afghanistan then he is most probably hiding in the deeply forested, narrow mountain valleys of Kunar province, close to the borders with Pakistan and China.

The small teams of American Special forces searching for him in this area have found it hard going.

The modern technology that is normally their greatest advantage is next to useless because the sophisticated drones and satellites can't see past the dense forest cover and the often bad weather.

Bin Laden is thought to travel this region in small groups of just four or five people and constantly change his plans in case any of his team have betrayed his movements.

With the locals he uses the appeal of cash, religious fealty and tribal loyalty. Bin Laden has invested both time and money here.

Putting down roots

According to the intelligence files on the flash disk, the man thought to be closest to Bin Laden in Kunar is the al-Qaeda regional commander Abu Ikhlas Almisri.

A rare picture of Mullah Omar
Taleban leader Mullah Omar remains defiant

The files say he has "direct connections" to Bin Laden and that he is also wanted for the murder of the Egyptian President Anwar Sadat.

Abu Ihklas typifies how al-Qaeda put down roots in Kunar province and why they still find it a safe haven.

He is one of many of Bin Laden's Arab fighters who married a local woman, speaks the language and enjoys the protection of the local tribes against all outsiders.

In a practical sense Osama Bin Laden is no longer a threat. Security analysts believe he cannot control or plan attacks against Westerners or anyone else because he is too busy trying to avoid capture.

But then al-Qaeda is also not what it was. It used to be a tight little group of secretive plotters.

It is now a franchise, like a militant version of Kentucky Fried Chicken with Bin Laden as a kind of evil Colonel Sanders.

Small unconnected groups of young, alienated men around the world go on the internet, get the recipe for bomb making etc and then plan their actions under the broad umbrella of the brand, 'Al-Qaeda'.

Last week the US Senate approved a $200m budget to resurrect the disbanded Central Intelligence Agency unit dedicated to hunting down Osama bin Laden.

The language used by the senators who pushed through the funding shows that catching Bin Laden is about pride and the need for Americans to see justice being done.

In themselves, both are understandable and necessary. But the energy spent on tracking down the world's most wanted man over the last five years has sucked vital resources from ensuring that the climate that allowed for the creation of al-Qaeda in the first place did not return.

Now the Taleban are back and with a vengeance. A Nato commander said recently that the next few weeks will be "decisive" in the fight against the Taleban.

This is a striking admission of failure by the international community. A little under five years ago western leaders were saying that they had just consigned the Taleban to the dustbin of history.

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