(AP) KABUL, Afghanistan – Afghan President Hamid Karzai said Sunday that Osama bin Laden is “definitely” in the region and eventually will be caught, even though American and Pakistani generals admit the trail is cold.
Speculation on bin Laden’s whereabouts has long focused on the mountains along the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan, where the al-Qaida leader slipped away from Afghan and U.S. forces three years ago.
“It’s very difficult to say where he is hiding. He cannot be away from this region. He’s definitely in this region,” Karzai told CNN’s “Late Edition.” “We will get him sooner or later, trust me on that.”
Pakistan’s army has mounted a series of bloody offensives against foreign fighters near the border this year, and American forces launched a winter-long operation last week against Taliban rebels on the Afghan side.
But there has been no indication they are close to seizing the suspected mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the United States, which prompted President Bush to launch Operation Enduring Freedom with an assault on Afghanistan.
Pressed in the CNN interview, recorded Sunday in the Afghan capital, Karzai declined to say whether bin Laden could be in Afghanistan, or in Pakistan. He said he knew of no suggestion the al-Qaida leader could be in neighboring Iran.
“But we can definitely say he’s around this region and he can’t run forever,” Karzai said.
Terrorism concerns aside, Karzai has expressed alarm at his country’s booming narcotics industry, which the United Nations says is turning Afghanistan into a “narco-state.”
On Sunday, Afghan judges and prosecutors began training for special courts officials hope will begin jailing heroin and opium kingpins early next year.
U.S. and British counter-narcotics experts are training Afghan security forces who have already begun destroying drug stockpiles, smashing refining laboratories and arresting traffickers.
Plans are also being laid to punish farmers by destroying opium poppy crops in key growing regions early next year. Meanwhile, hundreds of millions of dollars are earmarked to help the farmers switch to less lucrative but legal crops.
Karzai said Afghans were “embarrassed” to be the world’s biggest suppliers of opium and heroin.
“I promise you, and I like that American people and the rest of the world should know this, that we will fight poppy,” he said. “We know it hurts us. It hurts you. It hurts everybody. So we will fight it.”
Karzai, who triumphed in landmark October elections, said he hoped Iraqis, due to vote for lawmakers on Jan. 30, would follow the example of Afghans, who turned out in force to cast ballots despite the threat of militant violence.
In a separate interview with Newsweek magazine, Karzai said his new Cabinet, to be announced within days, would be “honest, accountable, austere” and able to deliver security and reconstruction — elusive goals also in Iraq.
“They must take this opportunity, elect their people to Parliament, and have a government of their own, and have peace,” he told CNN. “The Iraqi people also will gain nothing if they allow these people to come from outside and destroy their lives.”