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Afghanistan: U.S. Optimistic About Defeating Extremists

U.S. officials in Afghanistan yesterday painted an upbeat picture of the fight there against former Taliban and Al-Qaeda elements. But as RFE/RL reports from Washington, the reality may not be so rosy.

Washington, 18 February 2004 (RFE/RL) -- For what's left of the Taliban and Osama bin Laden's Al-Qaeda terror network in Afghanistan, time is quickly running out.

At least, that was the message conveyed in Afghanistan yesterday by U.S. civilian and military officials seeking to put a positive spin on six months of insurgency ahead of Afghan national elections tentatively set for June.

In separate addresses to reporters, both the top American commander in Afghanistan and a senior Pentagon official sought to portray the rump elements of the Taliban and Al-Qaeda as desperate and nearly defeated.

Although some 550 people have died in attacks by insurgents over the past half year in Afghanistan, U.S. Undersecretary of Defense Dov Zakheim said in Kabul that Washington is clearly winning the battle.

"The attacks are very different now, as you well know. A year ago, the Taliban still thought it could mount attacks with numbers of people. Now it tries even more cowardly things like a kidnapping or a bicycle bomb. It's a very different kind of operation, and that is because we are beating them," Zakheim said.

Speaking at Bagram Air Base in southern Afghanistan, Lieutenant General David Barno echoed that optimism. He said the hunt for bin Laden -- the alleged mastermind of the September 2001 attacks that killed 3,000 people in America -- was intensifying and bearing fruit.

"For all of the terrorist organizations, it's very clear in my mind, as I look to the future, that the sand in their hourglass is running out," Barno said.

Barno said the Pakistani military is confronting tribal leaders in the border region where bin Laden may be hiding. Their tactics appear to include the threat of violence to force tribal leaders to produce information on extremists in the area.

Barno said Pakistani soldiers and government paramilitaries have been meeting with tribal chiefs for several weeks, threatening them with "destruction of homes and things of that nature" unless they cooperate.

"We see great progress, in my judgment, since I've been here, in the early October timeframe, in what the Pakistanis are doing in the tribal areas. They never had been in those areas at all in the history of their country until this last year. We now see them operating periodically there with their regular army. We also see them taking on, I think, some pretty innovative programs over the last six weeks to get in and use the tribal leadership in the [Pakistani] North-West Provinces area, to get after foreign fighters who may be in those locales," Barno said.

Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf has been under growing pressure from Washington to step up his antiterrorism and anti-proliferation efforts following the recent disclosure that the country's top nuclear scientist has sold atomic technology to several rogue states.

Pakistan's new tactics for apprehending Al-Qaeda elements is coupled with a change of approach from the U.S. side as well.

Barno said U.S. forces on the border are moving away from targeted raids on suspected militants and instead placing troops in specific regions for patrol. The desired outcome, the general said, would be "hammer and anvil" effect whereby Pakistani raids would drive the suspects across the border and into the U.S. military's arms.

Anthony Cordesman is a former senior U.S. diplomat and military official now with Washington's Institute for Strategic and International Studies. Cordesman tells RFE/RL that Pakistan's tactics are welcome but are likely to come with a cost.

"There's no way to fight a low-intensity war where you don't have negative reactions to what you do. You are, after all, dealing with popular warfare with people who often oppose you politically. And when you take military action against insurgents, you can't always be certain that everyone involved is an insurgent and you can't eliminate collateral damage," Cordesman said.

Cordesman adds that the only alternative to such tactics would be to allow the Taliban and Al-Qaeda elements to operate with freedom -- an unacceptable position for Washington.

"The attacks are very different now, as you well know. A year ago, the Taliban still thought it could mount attacks with numbers of people. Now it tries even more cowardly things like a kidnapping or a bicycle bomb."
As for the upbeat picture on the fight against terrorism in Afghanistan depicted by the U.S. officials yesterday, Cordesman had some qualifications.

He says it remains unclear how effective U.S. military raids on extremists have actually been, since no numbers of captured or killed insurgents have been made public.

He says it's clear that extremists continue to launch raids from Pakistan and that Afghanistan's security problems are bad enough that some officials from the United Nations and European Union suggest it may be best to delay the June elections.

"And in other aspects of the situation in Afghanistan -- particularly the economic aid and economic recovery program, and the efforts to prepare for an election -- not only are there security problems, but the programs themselves are not working as well as might be hoped for. So it just seems premature to talk about victory in Afghanistan at this point in time," Cordesman said.

Cordesman also took issue with an upbeat assessment by Pentagon official Dov Zakheim on progress with the new Afghan Army, whose formation is going more slowly than expected.

Zakheim said that while the army is being put together, U.S. officials are focusing on setting up a national guard along the lines of the one in Iraq, which he said number some 200,000. Zakheim called the Iraq guard a successful model to be followed.

But Cordesman called much of the Iraqi guard "glorified security guards" and that the Iraqi defense forces actually only number about 2,600, including untrained recruits. "One has to be very careful about using numbers," he said.