WASHINGTON -- Danger to U.S. troops in Afghanistan is increasing as the Taliban militia and al-Qaida disintegrate, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld warns.
''Let there be no doubt, there will be further casualties in this campaign, in Afghanistan and elsewhere,'' Rumsfeld said Friday, the 55th day of the U.S. aerial assault that has punished but not finished off the Taliban.
The only substantial portion of Afghanistan still under Taliban control is around Kandahar, the southern city that gave birth to the radical movement of Islamic students. Appearing with Rumsfeld at a joint news conference Friday, Marine Corps Gen. Peter Pace said the military situation in the Kandahar area remains unclear.
''We do not know what we cannot see, which is how many actual fighters there are inside the city,'' Pace said. ''There has not yet been a major ground offensive battle. There are, we know, negotiations going on between the opposition forces and the Taliban leadership for surrender.''
There are still pockets of resistance elsewhere in Afghanistan, and Rumsfeld said thousands of Taliban and al-Qaida fighters are being held prisoner by the northern alliance and other opposition forces.
Without questioning the prisoners directly, he said, it is difficult to determine who among them are Taliban or members of al-Qaida, a terror network allegedly run by Saudi-born fugitive Osama bin Laden. Such interrogations expose interrogators to danger, Pace said.
''They are people who, for the most part, don't walk up and volunteer their names and identification numbers with a sample of DNA,'' Rumsfeld said. ''What they do is, they blend into the other prisoners.''
This was the situation when CIA officer Johnny ''Mike'' Spann was fatally shot Nov. 25 while interrogating enemy prisoners in Mazar-e-Sharif, a northern city under control of the northern alliance, Rumsfeld said. He praised Spann as a hero who knew the risks he faced.
A military transport plane is bringing Spann's body home Sunday, CIA officials said.
Rumsfeld said the Taliban and al-Qaida remain dangerous, even as their hold on Afghanistan crumbles.
''The Taliban can no longer freely move around the country; they're finding it increasingly difficult to manage their remaining forces,'' he said. ''Ironically, however, as the size of the Taliban real estate diminishes, the danger to coalition forces may actually be increasing.''
That is largely because shifting allegiances and growing chaos make it hard to distinguish friend from foe.
''There are plenty of Taliban people who 'defected,' quote-unquote, and may or may not stay defected. There are plenty of people who just melted into the cities and into the mountains that are still there -- and they're still armed,'' Rumsfeld said.
Americans also face dangers from fights between factions of the northern alliance, he said.
The danger to Americans would grow if the U.S. commander, Gen. Tommy Franks, decides he must send ground forces on a cave-by-cave manhunt for bin Laden. Franks' Persian Gulf-based U.S. Central Command includes the troops in Afghanistan. For now, Franks hopes Afghans motivated by $25 million in U.S. reward money will provide enough information to enable U.S. bombs to get bin Laden.
Instability in Afghanistan poses other dangers. International relief agencies, for example, say the lawlessness is making it unsafe to distribute food and other aid to millions of needy Afghans.
Kenneth Bacon, president of Refugees International, a private relief agency, wrote to President Bush on Friday complaining about the administration's opposition to deploying an international security force in the South Asian country.
''Increased security is necessary to achieve three crucial nonmilitary objectives -- the delivery of relief to head off starvation, the establishment of a stable post-Taliban government and the start of a reconstruction program in Afghanistan,'' said Bacon, a former Pentagon spokesman.
Rumsfeld said that while improving security is an urgent priority, it would be better to let the Afghans achieve that rather than bring in foreign forces.
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