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Afghanistan: Is Gardez New Phase Or 'Last Gasp' For Al-Qaeda, Taliban?

Fierce fighting in eastern Afghanistan has claimed the lives of eight U.S. servicemen and has shattered any lingering perceptions of a quick, easy, and clean victory for the U.S.-led campaign against the Taliban and Al-Qaeda. Analysts are wondering if the battle at Gardez is the "last gasp" of a collapsing terrorist network or if it marks a new, more difficult phase in a war that saw far swifter results in its first couple of months.

Prague, 7 March 2002 (RFE/RL) -- When U.S.-backed Afghan fighters stormed Tora Bora back in December, it was billed as a last stand for the Taliban and Al-Qaeda forces holding out in the eastern mountain cave complex.

Instead, that operation ended with hundreds of fighters -- possibly including Al-Qaeda's leader, Osama bin Laden -- slipping away. Taliban and Al-Qaeda forces have regrouped in Afghanistan's eastern Paktia Province, where some 1,200 U.S. and coalition soldiers in recent days joined Afghan fighters in the biggest U.S.-led ground assault since the Afghan campaign began in October. Some 1,000 Taliban and Al-Qaeda fighters are believed to have taken part in the fighting, which began in late February.

U.S. military officials are calling the current operation "Operation Anaconda" after the snake that crushes its prey to death. The idea is to surround the enemy fighters and cut off their escape routes. Afghanistan's interim leader, Hamid Karzai, said yesterday the area under attack is the last isolated terrorist base in the country and that the operation will be over in a couple of days. U.S. officials said B-52 bombers attacked suspected Taliban and Al-Qaeda hideouts in eastern Afghanistan today.

The operation's commander, Major General Frank Hagenbeck, said yesterday that coalition forces have the momentum.

"They [Al-Qaeda and the Taliban] have been funneling, infiltrating fighters into this area, and our estimation is that in the last 24 to 48 hours the number of enemy that we fought over time is somewhere in the neighborhood of 600 to 700 enemy. And conservatively speaking, right now I'm convinced, on the evidence that I've seen, that we've killed at least half of those enemy forces," Hagenbeck said.

U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, speaking yesterday at a Pentagon briefing, allowed that the fighting -- which has seen eight U.S. servicemen killed since 1 March -- is intense.

"The forces we face represent very hardened elements of Al-Qaeda and Taliban, true dead-enders," Rumsfeld said. "We expected that they would put up a fierce fight, and they have and they are and they continue to do so. But from everything we've seen, the coalition forces are certainly up to the challenge."

A military coalition spokesman said the battle has resulted in the deaths of some 100 Taliban and Al-Qaeda fighters, and possibly some non-combatants as well. But the continued heavy fighting has some observers speculating that despite forecasts of an early victory, the U.S.-led forces are now entering a new, and much more difficult, phase of the war on terrorism.

"To say that Al-Qaeda were vanquished and that the Taliban had dissolved like snow in the sunshine was an optimistic thought," Italy's Defense Minister Antonio Martino said yesterday. "If the estimates of 3,000 to 5,000 Taliban guerrillas are true, we have a military problem to solve -- not just pockets of resistance."

Ted Galen Carpenter is an expert on U.S. foreign policy at Washington's Cato Institute. He said it is normal for military campaigns in Afghanistan to grow more complex as the engagement wears on.

"It's certainly true that, historically, intervening powers have found the initial phase of their interventions [in Afghanistan] the easiest. They control the main population centers and so on. As the British found out in the 19th century and as the Soviets found out in the 1980s, that's just the beginning of the struggle, not the end. The U.S. might be finding out something similar here, that pockets of intense resistance may exist in some of the more remote areas of Afghanistan," Carpenter said.

But others say the remnants of the Taliban and Al-Qaeda are running out of places to run and that the U.S. this time is avoiding the mistakes of Tora Bora -- in particular, the almost complete reliance on local ground troops. Andrew Kennedy of Britain's Royal United Services Institute listed other lessons learned from Tora Bora.

"There wasn't a realization that the [Tora Bora] cave complexes stretched to such a degree, and the attacks on the Al-Qaeda and Taliban forces began before they had all the possible exits from the mountain complexes covered," Kennedy said. "This time, I'd say they've managed to track down and work out that this is another stronghold for the opposition, and I'd hope, and be fairly confident, that they have put the strategy in place, that [the Al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters are] not going to get away this time."

Still, he acknowledged that some key high-profile fighters could still slip away this time, too. And that's just one of the difficulties facing U.S. and coalition troops as they try to "mop up."

Al-Qaeda fighters are formidable foes for several reasons. Analysts say that, without a traditional command structure, it makes no difference to them if their leaders are killed or captured -- they fight on regardless. And their fanaticism means they prefer death to surrender. This is especially true for the foreign fighters with nowhere else to go.

The shifting loyalties and in-fighting of the coalition's Afghan allies also causes difficulties. The "Financial Times" reported that Padshah Khan, a local commander recently ousted as governor of Paktia Province, gave inaccurate information about the size of the force the U.S. could expect to encounter. Moreover, some Afghans are willing to make deals that permit Taliban fighters to escape.

But relying less on locals means putting troops on the ground, which leads to another risk -- mounting casualties. In addition to the eight U.S. soldiers killed, 40 U.S. soldiers have been injured since the beginning of the fighting on 28 February. But Marc Houben, a security and defense analyst at the Center for European Policy Studies in Brussels, said this should not affect U.S. strategy.

"We have had clear signals both from the Pentagon and military circles in the beginning of the campaign that the war against terrorism would mean the end of what was called the 'no-body-bag' doctrine, signaling that America was willing to accept fatal casualties in the war against terrorism. This has happened now," Houben said. "It's obviously a very tragic and sad loss, and I think the commanders in the field will try to learn as much from these tragic lessons as possible. But the overall strategy, in my opinion, is unlikely to change."

Analysts say American public opinion is more likely to tolerate casualties now than it was in earlier overseas military ventures such as Somalia. They say that is because the events of 11 September are still fresh in the mind and the Afghan campaign is considered important to national security.

But Carpenter said the U.S. nonetheless does not want to get bogged down in Afghanistan for years or see its mission transformed into a peacekeeping or nation-building venture. All of which raises the question: When will it be time for the U.S. to pack up and leave?

The Royal Institute's Kennedy said he and his colleagues initially thought the U.S. exit strategy was in place when the British took on the leadership of the International Security Assistance Force now patrolling Kabul.

"But it does appear that there are other military operations for the American forces to get involved in. Then again, when it comes down to it, they haven't committed a huge number of troops into Afghanistan -- there's a maximum of about 3,000 troops there at the moment," Kennedy said. "So essentially, it's not a huge commitment for them. But the exit strategy for them will essentially be when the last major pockets of Taliban and Al-Qaeda -- particularly for the latter, [the] Al-Qaeda forces -- have been eliminated."

Determining when this moment has arrived -- when most, or all, of the campaign's original objectives have been completed -- could be months down the road, analysts say. And the longer the U.S. stays, they add, the bigger the risk of getting bogged down in Afghanistan's national politics and rivalries. As the Cato Institute's Carpenter noted, the Soviet and British experiences are a warning "not to venture down that road."

(Gueorgui Stoychev of RFE/RL's Bulgarian Service contributed to this report.)