The Taliban leader, apparently unscathed by US air strikes on a Taliban leadership compound near Kandahar, ordered his forces yesterday to stand and fight to protect their last remaining stronghold.
Mullah Mohammed Omar reportedly told his fighters to not "vacate any areas" of Kandahar, the southern Afghan city where he and other leaders are thought to be preparing for a final stand. "This is not a question of tribes," he said. "This is a question of Islam."
Mullah Omar's defiant statement came amid reports that the US is preparing to send more ground troops to Kandahar to help opposition fighters capture the city and ensure that the Taliban and al-Qa'ida leadership does not escape into Pakistan. More US marines arrived at Dolangi airstrip, 60 miles from Kabul, yesterday from carriers on the Arabian Sea, bringing the numbers to 600, and another 400 marines are due in the next 48 hours.
They are likely to be joined by more marines and up to 1,000 infantry from the US army's 10th Mountain Division, based in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. Although a force of about another 1,000 British troops remains on 48-hour standby, there is still no definite plan to deploy them. Planners are no longer looking at just Bagram airbase, near Kabul, but also at Kandahar as a possible destination.
American, and any British forces which join them, are unlikely to take part in a frontal assault on Kandahar. Instead, the offensive will take the form of air strikes and raids by special forces, followed by advances by the Pashtun tribal militias.
But it seems increasingly clear that although the Taliban are being routed in other parts of the country, their leadership is not prepared to surrender Kandahar without a fight. Witnesses have reported that since the retreat from Kabul on 13 November, many Taliban, along with foreign fighters including Arabs, Pakistanis and Chechens, have fallen back to the southern city.
And military strategists in Washington and London have concluded that the Taliban stronghold is unlikely to fall unless the opposition forces get "considerable aid and guidance" from the coalition.
There is also a belief that the fall of Kandahar would see an attempt by the Taliban and their al-Qa'ida allies to break for the hills, needing large numbers of troops to intercept them.
Mullah Omar's survival of the attack on the compound housing senior al-Qa'ida figures was confirmed in Islamabad by a spokesman for the former Taliban ambassador to Pakistan, Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef.
The Pentagon conceded it did not know which, if any, senior figures had been killed in Tuesday's strike. However, a spokeswoman, Victoria Clark, said images taken by spy planes, and revealed by the Pentagon yesterday, showed a great deal of damage had been inflicted on the compound.
"We do not have names. We don't have a sense of exactly who was in there. We do not have any sense that Omar was there," she said. "The strike was considered effective in terms of the damage it did, but beyond that there is not much detail."
Another Pentagon official said: "After the strike, they [saw] the Taliban digging furiously in the debris. That is an indication to us of the success of the strike."
The US Defence Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, said: "Whoever was there is going to wish they weren't." Targeted strikes launched by the US in the last seven assaults are known to have killed a number of senior Taliban and al-Qa'ida figures.
Although negotiations are continuing between opposition tribal leaders and the Taliban over Kandahar, coalition sources do not expect a peaceful handover.
One 22-year-old Taliban fighter in the city told reporters: "Finally we will have something to shoot at. It's better to do something on the ground. We've just been looking up at the sky and couldn't do anything."
Civilians in the city fear a bloodbath – similar to that which took place in Kunduz or Mazar-i-Sharif – could unfold. "We are innocent victims in the front line," said one shopkeeper. "We'll just be sacrificed."
Meanwhile, at the southern town of Spin Boldak, close to the Pakistan border, forces massing against the Taliban said talks had failed and they would try to take the town by force.
Gul Agha, one of four Pashtun tribal commanders seeking to seize control of the town, said: "Now there is no other option except war."
In London, defence sources say the Pashtun anti-Taliban forces, led by Gul Agha, are not as effective as the Northern Alliance and have not, like the northern Afghan factions, benefited from Russian training. However, there is a consensus that the Taliban should be fought in Kandahar mainly by fellow Pashtuns, rather than Tajiks or Uzbeks of the Alliance.
A senior defence source said yesterday: "A lot of people were too pessimistic at the beginning and now they are being too optimistic. Kandahar could prove to be a long slog."