Bin Laden death tied to al Qaeda defeat: McChrystal

U.S. Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal, commander of the International Security Assistance Force and commander of United States Forces Afghanistan, speaks at a House Armed Services Committee hearing on the war in Afghanistan, at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, December 8, 2009. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Osama bin Laden is an iconic figure among extremists who must be captured or killed in order to defeat al Qaeda, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan said on Tuesday.

“I don’t think that we can finally defeat al Qaeda until he’s captured or killed,” General Stanley McChrystal told lawmakers as he testified before a Senate committee.

At the same time, McChrystal cautioned that killing or capturing the Saudi-born leader of the group that mounted the September 11, 2001 attacks in the United States would not by itself dismantle al Qaeda.

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates acknowledged over the weekend that the United States has not had good intelligence on bin Laden’s whereabouts for years and did not know where he was hiding.

White House National Security Adviser James Jones said on Sunday the best estimate was that he was somewhere in North Waziristan, “sometimes on the Pakistani side of the border, sometimes on the Afghan side of the border.” He said he thought there would be a new effort to go after him.

McChrystal said bin Laden’s very existence fanned extremism globally.

“I believe he is an iconic figure at this point, whose -- whose survival emboldens al Qaeda as a franchising organization across the world,” he said.

U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, Karl Eikenberry, testifying alongside McChrystal, added it was “important to the American people -- indeed, the people of the world -- that one day Osama bin Laden is either captured or killed, brought to justice.”

The U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee released a report late last month that blamed the lack of concerted efforts by former President George W. Bush’s administration and U.S. military commanders for allowing bin Laden to escape from the Tora Bora caves of Afghanistan in late 2001.

Reporting by Phil Stewart; Editing by Sandra Maler