Ed Wray  /  AP
An Afghan National Army soldier patrols a road outside Kabul on Tuesday.
NBC News and news services
updated 2/17/2004 3:06:52 PM ET 2004-02-17T20:06:52

The commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan said Tuesday that his troops are stepping up efforts to capture Osama bin Laden and ousted Taliban leader Mullah Omar, maintaining that the "sand in their hour glass is running out."

Briefing Pentagon reporters via teleconference from Bagram Airbase in Afghanistan, Army Lt. Gen. David Barno said the United States and Pakistan are improving cooperation in efforts to eradicate al-Qaida elements, using a "hammer and anvil approach" that will drive the terrorists out of Pakistan and across the Afghan border.

Pakistan says it does not want U.S. forces operating inside its borders, and the U.S. government says it won’t go in without Pakistani permission. Since 2002, Pakistan’s army has staged several operations targeting al-Qaida fugitives. Residents have reported seeing a small number of foreign personnel on such operations, but Pakistan denies it.

Barno also confirmed reports that the Pakistani military has entered tribal areas of the border region in the last two months in an effort to uncover and disrupt terrorist operations.

Pakistan troops threaten tribal leaders
He said Pakistani soldiers and government paramilitary forces have been meeting with tribal chiefs for at least six weeks and threatening them with “destruction of homes and things of that nature” unless they cooperate, Barno said.

Torn by conflict“That they’re confronting the tribal elders and they’re holding them accountable for activities in their areas of influence is a major step forward,” Barno said, briefing reporters at the Pentagon via teleconference from Afghanistan.

According to Barno, the 11,500-strong coalition force will step up military operations in the spring against Taliban and al-Qaida fighters, shifting from operating in large groups to conducting smaller-scale targeted attacks.

The enemy also has been intensifying its attacks, with more than 550 people killed in the past six months. The violence has raised concerns that elections due in June may be delayed.

Meanwhile, a senior Pentagon official touring Afghanistan said Tuesday that remnants of the Taliban military have been so badly battered that they have been reduced to “cowardly” acts such as bicycle bombings.

U.S. Undersecretary of Defense Dov Zakheim, the fourth-ranking official at te Pentagon, also said that Washington was pushing ahead with plans to pattern a national guard in Afghanistan after one being built in Iraq.

Although the last six months have been the most violent in Afghanistan since the Taliban was overthrown in 2001 for harboring al-Qaida and bin Laden, Zakheim said the nature of the attacks by remnants of the hard-line movement had changed.

‘We are beating them’
“A year ago the Taliban still thought it could mount attacks with numbers of people,” he told a news conference. “Now it tries even more cowardly things like a kidnapping or a bicycle bomb. It is a very different kind of operation and that is because we are beating them.”

Zakheim said planning was proceeding for a national guard that would fill holes while a new Afghan National Army is formed, a process that is proceeding more slowly than expected.

“We are looking at that, we have put together a program that we hope to model on what we consider to be very successful in Iraq,” he said.

“We have 200,000 Iraqis now in different kinds of units. We have a civil defense unit, we have a unit that protects facilities, we have a border protection unit as well as the Iraqi army.

“So we have seen a lot of success there, and this is building on that idea, and with time you will see it will materialize. We are asking our Congress for funds to support that.”

Afghan army plagued by desertions
Nearly 10,000 soldiers have been trained for the fledgling Afghan National Army, but it has seen many desertions because of low pay and tough conditions. The goal is an army of 70,000 soldiers.

Zakheim said the army desertion problem had been resolved and there were now more applicants than training spaces.

The approaching elections have added urgency to the need for security in a country racked by war for more than three decades.

NBC News' Jim Miklaszewski and Scott Foster and and the Associated Press and Reuters news service contributed to this report.

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