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Afghanistan: Renewed Fighting Raises Question Of U.S. 'Exit Strategy'

In the largest ground assault involving U.S. troops since the war in Afghanistan began last October, American soldiers -- fighting alongside Afghan forces -- battled Taliban and Al-Qaeda fighters in the east of the country over the weekend. Today brought fresh reports of continued fighting -- including the deaths of seven U.S. soldiers after the shooting down of one U.S. helicopter and the damaging of another -- and of U.S. warplanes bombing several areas south of the town of Gardez. With the surfacing of such reports, was U.S. victory in Afghanistan declared too soon?

Prague, 4 March 2002 (RFE/RL) -- When U.S.-backed forces ousted Afghanistan's Taliban militia from power late last year there was much celebration of what the U.S. had achieved in such a short time.

The doom merchants who predicted a repeat of the Soviets' disastrous decade-long Afghan war had been proven wrong. Superior American air power had helped. So had sympathy on the ground from Afghans eager to overthrow the strict Islamic militia. In less than three months, the Taliban were swept from power and an interim government put in place. The U.S. had apparently succeeded in avoiding engagement in a drawn-out guerrilla war.

But after several weeks of relative quiet in Afghanistan, U.S. ground troops over the weekend took part in what American military officials described as the largest U.S.-led ground operation yet. The offensive turned deadly for U.S. forces today when a Chinook helicopter was shot down by Al-Qaeda and Taliban forces who then exchanged fire with U.S. soldiers on the ground. At least six U.S. troops were killed and several others were injured. A seventh American soldier was killed in a separate incident when a helicopter was damaged but managed to fly to safety.

The assault began 1 March, when U.S. bombers began pounding mountains in the eastern Paktia Province in an effort to dislodge an unspecified number of Taliban and Al-Qaeda fighters holed up in bunkers and caves. "The New York Times" said some 600 U.S. servicemen were among a total of 1,500 troops -- including Afghans and other coalition soldiers -- participating in a ground offensive that started on 2 March. They pulled back after meeting fierce resistance but resumed their attack today.

Was this an unexpected turn of events for the U.S.? Paul Cornish of London's Centre for Defence Studies says not. On the contrary, he argues, the U.S. must have expected to stage this kind of ground operation from the campaign's beginning.

"When the whole thing began, there was so much talk about the problem of Afghanistan, and how history has shown you can't invade it and suppress it and all that kind of thing, and I don't think that was lost on any military commander going into the place, American or whoever else. Everybody knows this, it really is a very well-received message. I think it follows from that that military commanders have always known that there was going to be some kind of operation like this. This is the norm, really -- this guerilla-type operation is more the norm than what happened in the first place. So in a sense, the achievements of the first two months after October were a kind of bonus, to be honest."

Cornish says the recent fighting does not detract from U.S. achievements of the first couple of months after beginning its bombing campaign in early October.

"You have to look at what was achieved within a very short time, and it was quite a remarkable achievement. But I don't think that anybody was seriously expecting that the whole thing could have been wound up and bagged up in a very short time. There was always a sense that there was going to be some kind of follow-on operation. Whether you call it a mopping-up operation or a continuation of a major conflict -- which is what this seems to be -- is something we could discuss. But there was always a sense that this was going to take quite a while, given the country and the embedded [nature] of various factions in Afghanistan."

Timothy Garden is an associate fellow at London's Royal Institute for International Affairs. He says that at times the U.S.-led coalition will face a certain degree of overlap in resolving the two problems it faces in Afghanistan -- dealing with the remnants of Taliban and Al-Qaeda fighters, rebuilding the country, and promoting good governance.

"There will be a degree of confusion between the two problems because some of the regions of Afghanistan are more sympathetic toward the Taliban than toward the ruling Northern Alliance and others, and so both problems need solving."

Garden says the reliability of local forces varies from place to place, and that U.S. goals are of less interest to Afghans as time goes on. He says he doubts if the U.S. will stage many operations similar to the Paktia assault in the future.

"At any time there can be some, but from the point of view of Al-Qaeda trying to survive, regroup, and do further operations, I don't doubt the majority of them have fled over the borders."

The possibility of mounting casualties could also make the U.S. less interested in staging similar operations -- in addition to today's helicopter incident, one American soldier was among four people killed during the weekend fighting.

The question of what comes next has left many contemplating the nature of a U.S. "exit strategy" in withdrawing from Afghanistan. Garden says many Europeans worry the U.S. might pull out too soon.

"We'll need to spend a long time in Afghanistan proving the rule of law and promoting good governance and training the military and the police and all sorts of things that we used to do in the Balkans. That's going to take a long time and a lot of effort. That burden is currently mostly being done not by the U.S., because the U.S. is continuing its campaign against terrorism. So in some ways it's not a question of exit strategy that worries the Europeans, it's a question of keeping the U.S. engaged in the longer-term project to rebuild Afghanistan."

This, says Cornish of London's Centre for Defence Studies, is the "million-dollar question now plaguing Washington."