War focus shifts

Posted: Wednesday, December 19, 2001

WASHINGTON -- The United States is entering a new phase of the war in Afghanistan now that the partnership with Afghan fighters has all but broken the Taliban and al-Qaida as organized fighting forces.

It has become a manhunt, ''step by step, cave by cave,'' as one U.S. general put it Tuesday, to find Osama bin Laden and his closest allies, with or without Afghan help. The United States also has pledged to hunt down Mullah Mohammed Omar, the Taliban leader who harbored bin Laden for five years.

This final phase of the war is likely to feature less U.S. bombing, and action on the ground will no longer be focused mainly on territorial gains. U.S. bombers and strike aircraft flew over Afghanistan as usual Tuesday, but the Pentagon said far fewer bombs fell.

A new political ingredient could affect the military campaign, too: On Saturday a provisional government takes power in Kabul, the capital. The vanguard of a British-led international security force is expected to be in place there by then, but it will not immediately move beyond the capital.

The U.S. military focus now is twofold: Interrogating al-Qaida and Taliban prisoners for information useful in the hunt for bin Laden and Omar, and scouring the final major battlefield, in the Tora Bora mountain region of eastern Afghanistan, for fleeing enemy troops and clues to bin Laden's whereabouts.

The Bush administration still holds out hope that $25 million in reward money will help.

The shooting war is not over. On Tuesday, the 73rd day of the U.S. military campaign, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said the United States will not let up. ''The task is still ahead of us,'' he said, and it will not be accomplished quickly. ''It's going to be tough, dirty, hard work.''

Air Force AC-130 gunships, for example, are ready for U.S. forces to fire cannons, howitzers and Gatling guns on any Taliban or al-Qaida troops spotted fleeing the Tora Bora region. U.S. surveillance planes are scouring that area, and special operations troops are still on the ground.

Much of the emphasis now, however, is on squeezing as much useful information as possible from the prisoners who have been captured in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Some are being screened by U.S. officials and a small number have been transferred to American control.

It's unclear what that implies for the future of the partnership between U.S. and Afghan tribal forces. Together they defeated the Taliban and expelled the al-Qaida. From the Afghans' point of view, that amounts to victory. The United States, however, sees it only as a step toward getting bin Laden.

One of the next steps is searching the Tora Bora caves abandoned by al-Qaida in recent days.

Marine Corps Gen. Peter Pace, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Tuesday the search may be long.

''It's going to be step by step, cave by cave, and to put a time limit on that would be imprudent right now,'' he said.

The United States also has pledged to get Mullah Mohammed Omar, the Taliban leader who seemed to vanish when the southern city of Kandahar fell to opposition fighters more than a week ago.

Paul Wolfowitz, the deputy secretary of defense, told a Pentagon news conference Tuesday that the United States has even less reliable information about Omar's location than it has about bin Laden.

''It's been longer since we've seen even what sounded like convincing secondhand reports, much less firsthand reports,'' he said.

One report, from a tribal intelligence officer, said Omar had fled to Baghran, in the foothills of the south-central mountains, with 300 to 400 fighters.

Mountain ranges riddled with caves begin in a northwest corner of Kandahar province and run northwest to Baghran. Baghran is a gateway to the unguarded northern frontier and Turkmenistan, a notorious smugglers' track toward the breakaway Russian republic of Chechnya, where bin Laden's support remains strong.

Wolfowitz stressed more than once at his news conference that the war on terrorism was far from over.

''The war does not end in Afghanistan,'' he said.

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