WASHINGTON -- Thousands of Osama bin Laden's core Arab supporters in the northern Afghan city of Kunduz -- and thousands more who've already melted into the countryside -- pose a perplexing problem for the United States.
If they aren't killed, they must be locked up forever, the Pentagon says, because any who are given amnesty or free passage will simply try to launch more terror.
''It would be most unfortunate if the foreigners in Afghanistan -- the al-Qaida and the Chechens and others who have been there working with the Taliban -- if those folks were set free and in any way allowed to go to another country, and cause the same kind of terrorist acts,'' Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said this week. Later, he added: ''My hope is that they will be either be killed or taken prisoner.''
The issue gained urgency Thursday as northern alliance commanders announced that the Taliban agreed to surrender their last northern stronghold, Kunduz, and hand over thousands of Arabs and other foreign fighters loyal to Osama bin Laden.
U.S. officials have made clear in recent days that these bin Laden loyalists -- essentially the hard-core fighters of his al-Qaida network -- are its main target inside Afghanistan, beyond bin Laden himself and his top aides.
The United States will bomb any who try to flee, officials say. Those captured alive are likely to face President Bush's new military tribunals.
But the United States also must try to head off any potential massacres by the northern alliance or face accusations of complicity, experts warn. The U.S. commander, Gen. Tommy Franks, met with northern leaders this week to urge them to treat prisoners humanely.
''It's a dilemma for the U.S.,'' said John Pike, a defense analyst in Washington. ''This is the one piece of al-Qaida that we know where they are ... You'd certainly like to be able to interrogate some of them.''
On the other hand, Pike noted, ''You'd also just like to have them disappear from the earth forever.''
The foreign fighters in Kunduz are not Afghans, but Arabs -- Yemenis and Saudis -- and Pakistanis, Chechens, even ethnic Uighur Muslims from China's far west, who trained as terrorists in bin Laden's Afghanistan camps, and then joined Taliban forces.
In addition to the group surrounded in Kunduz, more of bin Laden's Arab fighters probably are hiding in southern and eastern Afghanistan or have managed to slip outside the country, perhaps to Pakistan. The Navy said Wednesday it will stop any merchant ships off Pakistan suspected of carrying escaping al-Qaida.
The Taliban who control the southern stronghold of Kandahar, in the only other holdout, are a much-lesser concern for the United States. If the top Taliban leaders there can be killed, the United States expects the rest of the Taliban in Kandahar to simply desert, and thus cease to be a threat, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz said Wednesday.
There are an estimated 3,000 to 5,000 Taliban in Kunduz, with bin Laden's foreign fighters perhaps 1,000 to 3,000 of those, U.S. officials say. No one knows for sure.
Bin Laden's followers were around Kunduz even before the U.S. military campaign began in early October. When the northern alliance began winning battles, more Taliban retreated there.
The Arab fighters have sworn a fight to the death, in part because they have nowhere else to go. Their countries, fearing Islamic extremism, won't take them back. Refugees fleeing Kunduz have said the bin Laden fighters are trying to prevent any Taliban surrender, even shooting would-be defectors.
The northern alliance warns if they don't surrender, they will be killed. The United Nations has urged alliance fighters to avoid a blood bath, but says it has no way to help troops who wish to surrender.
The United States doesn't have enough troops nearby to negotiate a surrender or take any prisoners, Rumsfeld said. Instead, the Pentagon hopes to soon base deadly AC-130 gunships in Uzbekistan to help hunt down the Arab fighters near Kunduz.
If any bin Laden fighters are captured alive, Bush would ultimately decide if they are candidates for the secret military tribunals. But it's a logical choice, said Ruth Wedgwood, a professor of international law at Yale University and Johns Hopkins University.
''It's traditionally been the prerogative, even the duty, of military commanders to try war crimes in the battlefield,'' Wedgwood said. That would raise the difficult question of what to do with them if they're convicted -- imprisonment or execution.
Nevertheless, ''These are very dangerous people,'' Wedgwood said. ''This, I would think, would be the least-controversial use of a military tribunal.''
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