WASHINGTON - The U.S.-backed effort to comb the caves of Tora Bora for signs of Osama bin Laden, his al-Qaida fighters and intelligence on terrorist attacks that might be in the works has made little progress and seems to be fading as a top priority, U.S. and Afghan officials said yesterday.
More than 50 U.S. troops remain in the region, but they are not searching any caves themselves, military officials said. The Afghan militia members carrying out that task are relatively few in number, poorly clothed for scouring the rugged terrain in increasingly harsh winter weather and unenthusiastic about the mission.
What was a high priority for the Bush administration in recent weeks seems now to have lost much of its impetus.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld declared Dec. 21 that there was "a sense of urgency" to clear the hundreds of caves as quickly as possible in the hopes of uncovering documents that could lead to the arrest of al-Qaida members worldwide or tip off a new terrorist attack. He said that "hundreds more" U.S. ground forces would be sent to join the hunt.
But six days later, Rumsfeld said that the material recovered so far from the caves had only "relatively modest" intelligence value. The Pentagon, for now, has also shelved plans to send several hundred Marines and Army troops to Tora Bora. Instead, the military is offering money and warm clothing to Afghan militia members to get the job done, accepting their methodical pace as a price worth paying to avoid sending in more U.S. forces.
"If it's a little slower, that's OK, we can live with that," said Rear Adm. Craig R. Quigley, a senior military spokesman.
Pentagon officials confirmed that U.S. soldiers were focused on examining materials recovered from the caves and positioning themselves to call in daily airstrikes. Bombing has largely ceased since Dec. 18, but U.S. warplanes still fly 50 to 60 missions a day over Afghanistan, prepared to strike if ground spotters call in targets.
Americans are "not leading the way into caves or joining anti-Taliban forces searching the caves," said Col. Rick Thomas, a spokesman for the U.S. Central Command in Tampa, Fla. "Generally, the people doing that are Afghans."
The Pentagon is still considering sending more troops to Tora Bora if the number of Afghan militia members falls short or if important new discoveries emerge from the caves.
The administration's slackening pace also seems to reflect a fresh assessment of bin Laden's whereabouts - or lack of intelligence about his location.
Just two weeks ago, Pentagon officials made a drumbeat of pronouncements that bin Laden was probably hiding in a mountain cave in Tora Bora. With his trail growing cold and reports that he may have fled to Pakistan, U.S. officials seem to be in no hurry to speed up the search or to use heavy equipment to open caves sealed by U.S. bombing.
"It's still an ongoing effort, but I'm not hearing much out of there," said a U.S. official who closely follows classified intelligence reports on the war. "The question of who might be there or who's dead remains an open question, but I haven't seen any live al-Qaida guys turned up there."
Troops under the control of Hazarat Ali, a U.S.-backed Afghan commander in Tora Bora, have been searching the caves, retrieving Pakistani and other foreign passports, documents and information, and passing them up to Ali, said one of his deputies, Gul Karim.
But the militia ranks have dwindled far below the number who fought al-Qaida. With many Afghans in Tora Bora saying they consider the war over and feel that it is time to go home, Karim said Ali's forces there numbered only about 200, compared with about 1,000 during the heat of the battle. The number of fighters allied with two other regional commanders is even lower and has also decreased sharply, he said.
Not only are they less motivated to track down bin Laden, but the documents they find are not all getting directly to U.S. forces. Caves have been looted for profit. Some of the fighters of the Eastern Shura have tried to sell documents to journalists and U.S. military forces. Some documents appear genuine, among them bomb-making manuals in Arabic, which have an asking price of $5,000. Others are worthless, such as United Nations vehicle documents - part of a cache of papers that one midlevel Afghan commander insisted was worth $200,000.
Since the United States has made a principal aim of the war the capture or death of bin Laden, his disappearance has become politicized, with regional rivals casting his whereabouts in a way most favorable to their interests.