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BIN LADEN MAY EVADE U.S., RUMSFELD SAYS, BUT TALIBAN WILL FALL

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld says the United States might not be able to catch terrorist Osama bin Laden, but he predicted the Taliban regime harboring him in Afghanistan will be toppled.

"Yes, I think there will be a post-Taliban Afghanistan," Rumsfeld told USA Today. "That is easier than finding a single person."

Rumsfeld told the paper that capturing or killing bin Laden will be "very difficult."

"It's a big world," he said. "There are lots of countries. He's got a lot of money, he's got a lot of people who support him, and I just don't know whether we'll be successful. Clearly, it would be highly desirable to find him."

In any event, he said, bin Laden's terrorist network would carry on without him. "If he were gone tomorrow, the same problem would exist," he said.

In London, British Prime Minister Tony Blair said he expected bin Laden would be killed, not arrested.

Wednesday, the Pentagon acknowledged for the first time that Afghanistan's ruling Taliban militia is proving to be a tenacious opponent and hunkering down for a long fight that could drag on for months through the harsh Afghan winter.

Rear Adm. John D. Stufflebeem said the Taliban has stopped advances by opposition Northern Alliance forces on Kabul, the capital, and an airfield near the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif and begun dispersing its forces in ways that will be difficult to strike from the air alone.

"They are proven to be tough warriors," Stufflebeem said. "We're in an environment they obviously are experts in, and it is extremely harsh. The entire world needs to recognize that terrorism and terrorists are a much different kind of threat than we have ever faced before."

Stufflebeem's sober assessment stood in stark contrast to more upbeat assertions from the Pentagon early on in the air campaign, including a claim nine days ago that the Taliban's combat capabilities had been "eviscerated" by U.S. airstrikes.

One senior Pentagon official said the lack of success on the ground north of Kabul is not surprising because -- to date at least -- most of the U.S. strikes have focused on Taliban positions in the southern city of Kandahar, the stronghold of the ruling militia.

"Taliban forces hunkered down on the front lines north of Kabul are not a threat to us," the official said. "We'll get them in due course. Seizing Kabul is not our objective. The center of gravity for the U.S. is Kandahar."

The official said the Taliban had prepared "remarkably poorly" before the onset of airstrikes Oct. 7 by failing to disperse its forces. But, the official said, the Taliban has adjusted in recent days. "They've figured that out now, and now they are trying to husband resources and hang on for the long haul," the official said.

Asked to assess the Taliban's strengths and vulnerabilities, Stufflebeem said he was "surprised at how doggedly they're hanging on to power -- I think that's the way to put it." Referring to Mullah Mohammed Omar, the Taliban leader, Stufflebeem added, "For Mullah Omar to not see the inevitability of what will happen surprises me."

To underscore the Taliban's determination, Stufflebeem said the United States has obtained credible intelligence that the Taliban may try to poison food aid being distributed to starving Afghan civilians and blame the act on the United States.

"We are confident in what we have obtained as information," Stufflebeem said. "We are choosing to release that information now before it might become a fact. If it becomes a fact, it's not because the United States is doing something untoward. It's because somebody else is."

In Afghanistan, U.S. jets today resumed bombing raids over the front lines north of Kabul for a fifth day, and some opposition commanders called on the United States to send ground troops and liquidate the Taliban quickly.

At the Islamic militia's southern stronghold of Kandahar, U.S. strikes hit a bus near the city gates and at least 10 civilians were killed in a fiery explosion, the Taliban and residents said. The claim could not be independently verified.

North of Kabul, opposition commanders complained anew that U.S. attacks have not been strong enough to dislodge Taliban positions.

"If America wants to finish off terrorism and the Taliban in Afghanistan, they must bring in ground troops," said a man who was leading a small group of fighters in the town of Korak Dana. "This should be quick."

With U.S. military action against the Taliban intensifying, diplomats stepped up efforts to form a viable post-Taliban government.

Saudi Arabia dispatched Saud al-Faisal, its foreign minister, for talks with Gen. Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan's president, on post-Taliban Afghanistan.

Afghan tribal representatives, meanwhile, ended a two-day meeting in Peshawar, Pakistan, with a call for an end to the bombing campaign and establishment of a multiethnic, broad-based government to replace the Taliban. They also approved a resolution urging the former King Mohammad Zaher Shah to play a role.

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