US commander calls for more ground forces to hunt al-Qa'ida

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The Independent Online

The first breach in the American policy of directing operations against al-Qa'ida from on high while getting Afghan irregulars to do the dirty work on the ground appeared to be opening up yesterday when General Tommy Franks, head of the US Central Command, proposed sending American ground forces in strength to hunt al-Qa'ida fighters still at large on the Afghan border.

The Pentagon said it would decide on the proposal in the next few days and the first troops could arrive soon after.

US officials admit that nearly all senior Taliban leaders have survived the American bombing and eluded capture. The proposal from General Franks is a belated recognition that while the current policy has kept American servicemen safe and words such as "quagmire" out of the headlines – one American, a CIA agent, has died in action so far, as against eight overseas journalists – it has allowed the Taliban to be replaced across much of the country by an anarchic and combustible jumble of rival mujahedin factions who may lack either the ability or the will or both to finish off what remains of al-Qa'ida.

Yet the problem of sending Western ground troops into the country in serious numbers is political as well as military. This was underlined yesterday by Afghanistan's interim Defence Minister, Mohammed Fahim, who said that the British peace-keepers, the first batch of whom are due to arrive today, "are here because they want to be. But their presence is a symbol ... They have no right to disarm anyone."

The Northern Alliance, whose members hold key posts in the interim government, has insisted since the Taliban fled Kabul that it is in control of the country. Yet while the capital is calm, not far beyond the city limits, both to the east and the south, there is anarchy as Pashtun militias and recently reformed Taliban jostle menacingly for advantage in the new dispensation.

In the Tora Bora mountains on Tuesday, for example, a gunfight nearly broke out between mujahedin loyal to Commander Haji Zahir and to Commander Muhammed Zamin, rival warlords in the region, when fighters loyal to the latter were rumoured to have trespassed on Zahir's turf.

In Pakistan's North West Frontier province, meanwhile, five al-Qa'ida prisoners were still at large last night after a group of them rose up on Wednesday against Pakistani guards escorting them to jail. The death toll in the gunfight that followed has risen to 17, including several Pakistani soldiers and paramilitary police.