Rumsfeld says allies have big task ahead of them

War on terrorism: Tactics
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The Independent Online

If a week is a long time in politics, it is an eternity in this Afghan war.

A few days ago, pundits on both sides of the Atlantic were wringing their hands at a war that seemed to be heading nowhere. Pentagon spokesmen were grudgingly praising the tenacity of the Taliban fighters, hawks were demanding an end to half-measures, while others worrying about turmoil in the Arab world were talking of a face-saving formula to extract America from a morass of its own making.

Today, the problem for the Bush administration is the reverse – it must rein in triumphalism amid expectations that the military part of the campaign could be over in days.

"Our task is to find the al-Qa'ida and the Taliban leadership and we still have that ahead of us," said Donald Rumsfeld, the Defence Secretary, while Vice-President Dick Cheney spoke yesterday of "a very good beginning to what's likely to be a long struggle".

Discussion is already moving from "phase one" of the campaign, the defeat of the Taliban and the discovery of Osama bin Laden, to a "phase two" that moves beyond Afghanistan to concentrate on individuals and states that sponsor terrorists or offer them sanctuary.

In fact, it was the grumbling about the slow progress that led to the seeming rout of the Taliban. The regime's control of Afghanistan has been cut from 90 per cent to maybe 20 per cent, in the space of four days.

For more than three weeks after the military campaign started on 7 October, the air strikes were kept at a deliberately low level muted, to allow the politicians time to build a post-Taliban coalition to rule Afghanistan.

But the State Department and CIA could not deliver and the strategy failed. At that point President Bush gave Mr Rumsfeld and the Pentagon their head. The weapons flow to the Northern Alliance speeded up, and heavy bombing was unleashed – increasingly accurate thanks to more guidance from the ground in Afghanistan.

The result was stunning proof of America's setpiece military might. Within 10 days, the Taliban were driven first from Mazar-i-Sharif, then Kabul had fallen, and by yesterday the regime was reportedly losing its grip on its stronghold of Kandahar. Every sign is that the defections which diplomatic blandishments failed to achieve are starting to happen, as realities on the ground change, and tribal leaders scramble to be on the winning side.

Less clear is what happens next. As one State Department official put it: "Policy papers you write in the morning are obsolete by the afternoon".

Michael O'Hanlon, a defence analyst at the Brookings Institution in Washington, estimated that the Taliban still had 35,000 men, more than double the forces of the Northern Alliance. "There are two possibilities – that the Taliban will fight hard in the Kandahar [region], or that they will retreat to the mountains and fight hard there." Officials are divided on whether the Taliban retreat is tactical, or a harbinger of the regime's implosion. Nor does the US seem much closer to finding Mr bin Laden – although hopes are growing that it may not need to, given the $7m (£4.8m) price on his head and the reports of defections. "Bin Laden is now more at risk from his Afghan bodyguards than from American bombs," said Stephen Cohen, a former senior State Department official and Afghanistan specialist.

But if the Taliban do not crack, then the US – and Britain – may have to commit extra ground forces in the south to complete the conquest, with the risk of being drawn, just as the Soviet Union was two decades ago, into a guerrilla war.

This time, admittedly, the danger is smaller, given that it is Afghans, not invaders, who are involved in the fight, and that there is no outside supplier of arms to compare to the US support for the mujahedin who fought the Russians.

Mr Rumsfeld confirmed yesterday that élite US forces were active in the south, as fighting continued at Kunduz in the north. During a visit to the still smoking ruins of the World Trade Centre, he said he expected tribes who had been unsympathetic to the Taliban to join the fighting near Kandahar.

But he gave no clue to the numbers of US troops in Afghanistan, and said merely that the special forces units were also making an unspecified "series of assessments". There was no evidence that any Taliban rulers or leaders of the al-Qa'ida guerrilla network had been found. Still, the situation is more favourable than Washington could have dreamt of a week ago. "One thing is for sure," said the former National Security Council official James Lindsay. "The administration far prefers this week's problems to those of last week."

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