Correction to This Article
An incorrect date appeared in an earlier version of this article about the hunt for Osama bin Laden. The article should have said that several officers confirmed that the number of special operations troops in Afghanistan was reduced in March 2002.
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Bin Laden Trail 'Stone Cold'

U.S. soldiers leave for a forward military base in Naray in northern Afghanistan as the search for Osama bin Laden goes on.
U.S. soldiers leave for a forward military base in Naray in northern Afghanistan as the search for Osama bin Laden goes on. (By B.k. Bangash -- Associated Press)

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Despite a lack of progress, at CIA headquarters bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, are still the most wanted of the High Value Targets, referred to as "HVT 1 and 2." The CIA station in Kabul still offers a briefing to VIP visitors that declares: "We are here for the hunt!" -- a reminder that finding bin Laden is a top priority.

Gary Berntsen, the former CIA officer who led the first and last hunt for bin Laden at Tora Bora, in December 2001, says, "This could all end tomorrow." One unsolicited walk-in. One tribesman seeking to collect the $25 million reward. One courier who would rather his kids grow up in the United States. One dealmaker, "and this could all change," Berntsen said.

Bin Laden Still Alive

On the videotape obtained by the CIA, bin Laden is seen confidently instructing his party how to dig holes in the ground to lie in undetected at night. A bomb dropped by a U.S. aircraft can be seen exploding in the distance. "We were there last night," bin Laden says without much concern in his voice. He was in or headed toward Pakistan, counterterrorism officials think.

That was December 2001. Only two months later, Bush decided to pull out most of the special operations troops and their CIA counterparts in the paramilitary division that were leading the hunt for bin Laden in Afghanistan to prepare for war in Iraq, said Flynt L. Leverett, then an expert on the Middle East at the National Security Council.

"I was appalled when I learned about it," said Leverett, who has become an outspoken critic of the administration's counterterrorism policy. "I don't know of anyone who thought it was a good idea. It's very likely that bin Laden would be dead or in American custody if we hadn't done that."

Several officers confirmed that the number of special operations troops was reduced in March 2002.

White House spokeswoman Michele Davis said she would not comment on the specific allegation. "Military and intelligence units move routinely in and out," she said. "The intelligence and military community's hunt for bin Laden has been aggressive and constant since the attacks."

The Pakistani intelligence service, notoriously difficult to trust but also the service with the best access to al-Qaeda circles, is convinced bin Laden is alive because no one has ever intercepted or heard a message mourning his death. "Al-Qaeda will mourn his death and will retaliate in a big way. We are pretty sure Osama is alive," Pakistan's interior minister, Aftab Khan Sherpao, said in a recent interview with The Washington Post.

Pakistani intelligence officials also say they think bin Laden remains actively involved in al-Qaeda activities. They cite the interrogations of Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani, a key planner of the bombings of two U.S. embassies in East Africa in 1998, and Abu-Faraj al-Libbi, who served as a communications conduit between bin Laden and senior al-Qaeda operatives until his capture last year.

Libbi and Ghailani, who was arrested in Pakistan in July 2004, were the last two people taken into custody to have met with and taken orders from Zawahiri and to hear directly from bin Laden. "Both Ghailani and Libbi were informed that Osama was well and alive and in the picture by none other than Zawahiri himself," one Pakistani intelligence official said.

Two Pakistani intelligence officials recently interviewed in Karachi said that the last time they received firsthand information on bin Laden was in April 2003, when an arrested al-Qaeda leader, Tawfiq bin Attash, disclosed having met him in the Khost province of Afghanistan three months earlier.

Attash, who helped plan the 2000 USS Cole bombing, told interrogators that the meeting took place in the Afghan mountains about two hours from the town of Khost.

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© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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