Pentagon plans to take the fight into shadowy territory

War on terrorism
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Exactly two months after the military campaign began, the US has reached a turning point in the Afghan part of President Bush's offensive against terrorism. The visible part of the war to topple the Taliban and destroy Osama bin Laden and his network is largely over.

But the next phase could be the most perilous yet: mopping up the undoubted pockets of Taliban resistance after the fall of Kandahar and the pursuit of the two prime physical targets: Mr bin Laden and Mullah Mohammed Omar, the supreme leader of the Taliban who was still eluding his would-be captors last night.

And the first omens have not been good – reports of fighting between some of the anti-Taliban forces which have taken over Kandahar which could presage a more general relapse into anarchy, and evidence that Taliban fighters had broken Thursday's surrender agreement by fleeing into the hills without handing over their weapons.

This raises the spectre of repeats of the uprising a fortnight ago at the prison of Mazar-i-Sharif, in which pro-bin Laden fighters managed to secure arms and stage a bloody uprising in which hundreds died, including one US soldier. Nor was it clear last night whether Tora Bora, the complex in the mountains south-east of Jalalabad said to be Mr bin Laden's lair, has in fact been captured.

The public face of the Pentagon, epitomised by the Defence Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, is a swaggering delight at the progress so far, accompanied by more warnings that there must be no leniency for Mullar Omar or the Al-Qa'ida ringleaders, and tempered by obligatory cautions that the job has not yet been completed.

Behind the scenes, however, tricky questions are queuing up to be answered. The first is whether to increase the number of US ground troops in the country. Though US air power has been decisive in the defeat of the Taliban, the American presence on the ground has been relatively limited.

Now, however, the campaign moves into more shadowy territory, that of tracking down the principal targets on terrain that does not favour the US, and where air power alone will no longer suffice. A mixture of accurate intelligence and swift strikes will be the key. The US must decide whether to continue its tactics thus far, of small special forces teams helping guide and co-ordinate opposition operations in the pursuit of shared objectives or, increasingly, to go it alone.

None the less, Washington was able yesterday to contemplate a task largely completed. Afghanistan's main centres are all in the hands of the opposition, and the government upon which the US declared war, no longer exists. "The Taliban authority is effectively finished," Hamid Karzai, designated head of the incoming interim government, declared as what remained of the Islamic regime surrendered its last stronghold of Kandahar.

If Mullah Omar and Mr bin Laden are still at large, the latter's organisation in Afghanistan is in ruins. Its camps have been destroyed, and the al-Qa'ida high command has been decimated. Mr bin Laden's deputy, Ayman al-Zawahri, is reported to be seriously wounded or dead. Mohammed Atef, the group's third in command and the reputed master planner of the 11 September attacks, has been killed.

But the dangers ahead are huge. Mr Rumsfeld may be confident that the new leadership would not risk a rift with the US by cutting a deal over Kandahar that is too generous to the outgoing Taliban. But the fact is that the interests of Washington and its clients are diverging.

The Bush administration's overriding aim is the capture of the fugitives. The prime concern of Mr Karzai and the government due to take over in Kabul is to avoid a bloodbath, rebuild national unity and start the job of reconstructing a shattered country.