War plan shifts into `peculiar twilight'

As fighting dwindles, new hazards emerge for American troops

War On Terrorism

January 07, 2002|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - American airstrikes in Afghanistan have slowed to a trickle. Searches of caves around Tora Bora are nearing the end. A new and improved cave-busting bomb slated for the front two weeks ago is now being held in reserve.

Those developments and similar ones provide ample evidence that Operation Enduring Freedom, the U.S. military campaign against the Taliban and the al-Qaida terrorists, has entered a new phase, one that is more dogged, potentially hazardous and diplomatically sensitive.

The new face of the war is taking shape throughout the war-torn country. Small groups of American soldiers have joined Afghan fighters on raids and intelligence-gathering efforts, an open-ended effort that will likely take months and increase the possibility of casualties.

On Friday, an Army special operations soldier was killed as he joined Afghan fighters in a firefight against enemy forces near the eastern city of Khost.

It was the first reported death of a U.S. soldier by hostile fire and comes after the killing in November of a CIA agent by Taliban prisoners near Mazar-e Sharif and the deaths in December by friendly fire of three Army Green Beret soldiers outside Kandahar.

"The risk to our soldiers from ambush and booby traps is pretty significant now," one defense official said before the report of the soldier's death near Khost. "It's potentially more serious."

Hundreds of Marines in the south are being replaced by Army airborne troops, who will form a garrison force of greater duration, one complete with MPs to guard the growing number of prisoners and a "quick reaction" capability to mount helicopter-borne raids against enemy hideouts. Several hundred special operations soldiers also are working throughout the country.

Meanwhile, allied relationships are being tested. Anti-Taliban Afghan fighters are in some instances negotiating the surrender of their one-time foes, which Pentagon officials fear could lead to some of them slipping away.

"You have seen many people disappear where all these negotiations have gone on," said a Pentagon official. In addition, there were tribal groups around Tora Bora "selling passage to Pakistan" for al-Qaida fighters, officials said.

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld told reporters last week that much remains to be done despite a new anti-Taliban government and the rout of al-Qaida.

"We've got a lot left to do in Afghanistan," said Rumsfeld, adding that U.S. military forces will remain there "as long as it takes to complete the mission." The first part of that updated mission is to make sure the Taliban "stays out of power," he said, the second is to track down the elusive Taliban and al-Qaida leadership.

Loren Thompson, a defense analyst at the Lexington Institute, a conservative think tank, said the United States is finding itself in a "peculiar twilight" in Afghanistan, "somewhere between mopping up and nation building."

"We fought a limited war using proxies," he said. "We haven't lost, but we haven't won decisively." The top Taliban leadership, including supreme leader Mullah Mohammed Omar, and terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden are still at large. The Afghan fighters are becoming less interested in pursuing those top leaders and their remaining supporters, Thompson noted. Increasingly, that job will have to be handled by U.S. troops, he said.

Thompson said the U.S. strategy of relying heavily on a proxy force might have outlived its usefulness. The Afghans have achieved their goal of a new, non-Taliban government and a collapsed al-Qaida, while some U.S. objectives have yet to be reached.

"We're now facing the problem you always have when you use proxies. Your strategy works only when your interests are closely aligned," he said. "When your interests diverge, the strategy unravels."

Rumsfeld was clearly frustrated last week in describing the Byzantine negotiation process going on between the various levels of anti-Taliban fighters and the entrenched Taliban forces. "I don't know, precisely, what's going on with respect to that," he told reporters.

Still, he said that the interim government of Hamid Karzai agrees that the top Taliban leadership and those in the al-Qaida network must face justice.

"We're not in the business of authorizing any kind of negotiation that would let people like that go," Rumsfeld said.

Retired Army Gen. Wesley Clark, the former NATO supreme commander who ran the U.S.-led air campaign in Kosovo two years ago, said he was not concerned by the negotiations between the Taliban holdouts and the new Afghan leaders.

"If we don't like the result, we'll apply torque and get a different result," he said. Such torque equates to U.S. assistance, both military and financial, he said.

Milt Bearden, who ran the CIA's effort to arm Afghan fighters against the Soviet occupation that began in 1979, said such negotiations are common in a country where many fighters are related and conflicts are "like a football game" - when the violence ends, both sides go home.

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