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Afghanistan: U.S. Forces Shift Focus To Taliban, Al-Qaeda Leadership

The Pentagon says it is now going after the Taliban and Al-Qaeda leadership in an effort to weaken the morale of pro-Taliban fighters on the ground. Fighting is continuing around the southern city of Kandahar. In the north, a small team of American infantry soldiers has moved in from Uzbekistan to serve as a rapid-reaction force in case of renewed Taliban resistance in the city of Mazar-i-Sharif.

Prague, 29 November 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The Pentagon is focusing its military operation in Afghanistan more intently on eliminating the leadership of the Taliban and the Al-Qaeda terrorist network.

Pentagon spokesman Rear Admiral John Stufflebeem signaled the shift at a press conference yesterday in Washington. He said eliminating the Taliban leadership will weaken the morale of Taliban and Al-Qaeda ground troops.

"If we break the leadership of the Taliban and break the leadership of Al-Qaeda, there is reduced emphasis -- or reduced motivation -- for troops to stay loyal to the cause and continue to fight."

Stufflebeem said the U.S.-led war effort, now in its eighth week, has succeeded in disrupting communications between Taliban leaders and their ground forces deployed in the southern city of Kandahar and pockets of territory in the rest of the country. Stufflebeem said those leaders are "no longer calling the shots."

He said: "We know there are elements of the leadership that are trying to reach their seniors for guidance. We know that there's still guidance coming down from senior leaders. But to say that they are still calling the shots, or are still formally in control, is an overstatement."

The Pentagon says it is concentrating on two areas where suspected terrorist Osama bin Laden and Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar may be hiding. One is Kandahar, and the other is a remote mountainous hideout near the eastern city of Jalalabad known as Tora Bora.

Both Omar and bin Laden, the chief suspect in the 11 September attacks that killed 3,500 people, are thought to be alive and still at large. Reuters today quotes a spokesman (Mohammad Habeel) for the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance as saying the two are "alive and still in Afghanistan."

U.S. bombers today struck Taliban forces and targets in and around Kandahar, where the Taliban militia is still dug in.

The U.S. continues to fly in marines to an airport about 100 kilometers from Kandahar. It's not clear what the mission will be, but the Pentagon says the marines will be used mainly for search and destroy operations on the ground. The number of marines at the airport is believed to be around 1,000.

U.S. warplanes have stepped up bombing in the mountainous region southwest of Jalalabad. They are targeting Tora Bora, a remote hideout about 50 kilometers from Jalalabad in southern Nangarhar province.

General Tommy R. Franks, the commander of U.S forces in Afghanistan, confirmed this week the Pentagon is "paying very, very careful attention" to Tora Bora. He said he was "90 percent sure" that bin Laden and senior members of Al-Qaeda are hiding there.

Newspaper reports say bin Laden moved to Tora Bora when he was forced out of Sudan in the 1990s. Tora Bora is said to be three hours on foot from the nearest road and to contain tunnels and rooms that could house hundreds of men. It has ventilation, water, and electricity.

A smaller number of U.S. troops based in Uzbekistan have been moved near the Afghan capital, Kabul, and the northern town of Mazar-i-Sharif. It's not clear what their role will be, although the news agency Agence France Presse reports that some U.S. soldiers are working today to demine the airport at Mazar-i-Sharif.

The U.S. yesterday confirmed its first casualty in Afghanistan: Central Intelligence Agency officer Johnny "Mike" Spann. Spann is believed to have died in an uprising of Taliban prisoners near Mazar-i-Sharif on 25 November.

The circumstances surrounding Spann's death are unclear, but U.S. officials praised Spann as a hero who died in the line of duty.

Spann's father, speaking yesterday in his hometown of Witfield, Alabama, told of his son's patriotism:

"He felt that he would be able to make the world a better place for us to live. We recall him saying: 'Someone has got to do the things that no one else wants to do.' That is exactly what he was doing in Afghanistan. And we're proud of his dedication and his service to our great nation."

Four other Americans have died in non-combat operations related to the war but outside of Afghanistan.

In the Afghan south, meanwhile, tribal fighters opposed to the Taliban continue to move on Kandahar in an effort to capture Omar and persuade his commanders to surrender.

Forces loyal to Gul Agha, a former governor of Kandahar, are reported to be in control of the town of Takteh Pol on the main road between the city and the Pakistani border.

Reuters quotes a spokesman for the group, Khalid Pashtoon, as saying the troops are moving toward Kandahar and expect to be there in a few days.

Pashtoon says the biggest obstacle has been Omar's call this week ordering Taliban troops to fight to the death. Pashtoon says this has prevented many soldiers from defecting. Still, there are some reports of defections.

The U.S. television network CBS says several senior Taliban officials, including the head of military intelligence and at least two government ministers, have defected to the Northern Alliance and are now in Pakistan. There was no immediate confirmation from the Alliance or the Pakistani government.

On the Pakistani border, the stand-off over the town of Spin Boldak continues. The town has come under regular bombardment from U.S. warplanes, and four anti-Taliban commanders are said to be vying to capture the town.

Reuters reports today the Taliban still appear to be in control in spite of protracted negotiations to surrender.

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    Mark Baker

    Mark Baker is a freelance journalist and travel writer based in Prague. He has written guidebooks and articles for Lonely Planet, Frommer’s, and Fodor’s, and his articles have also appeared in National Geographic Traveler and The Wall Street Journal, among other publications.