US launches fresh Afghan offensive to bolster Karzai

Phil Reeves
Friday 21 March 2003 01:00

The Americans have always said that their army is designed to fight wars on two fronts. And yesterday that was what it was doing.

Minutes after the first missiles slammed into Baghdad, the skies of southern Afghan-istan were filled with the din of American combat helicopters hunting in the mountains for al-Qa'ida fighters and other armed opponents of Hamid Karzai's frail American-backed government.

The US military at Bagram air base, near Kabul, said the operation had been planned for several months and insisted that it was purely coincidental that it began during the opening salvos in Iraq. But governments rarely tell the truth in times of war.

The operation – one of the biggest offensives of the past year – was an attempt by the Americans to send a signal to their opponents that its armed forces in Afghanistan did not intend to slacken. It may also have been part of tireless attempts by the US to bracket Saddam Hussein's Iraq with their "war on terror" against Osama bin Laden's al-Qa'ida, a link that much of the rest of the world does not accept.

It was probably meant as a deterrent. US military officials have made little secret of their view that an Iraq war may harden anti-Americanism.

It will also be an attempt to reassure the Karzai administration, which must realise that its struggle to build a credible government – always difficult in an ethnically divided society awash with weapons and warlords – will now be harder still.

The start of the war was greeted with anger among the people of Pakistan and Afghanistan, who will have been unmoved by yesterday's speeches from American and British leaders, especially Donald Rumsfeld's charge that the Iraqi regime "kills people every day to enforce obedience and discipline" – a remark that played into the hands of Muslim leaders who say that it equally applies to Israel.

According to Col Roger King, the US army spokesman at Bagram, about 1,000 troops supported by Apache and Blackhawk helicopters launch-ed a ground and air assault at around 6am. It centred on the Sami Ghar mountains, close to the Pakistani border and 60 miles east of Kandahar, a former Taliban stronghold. They did so, he said, in response to a "mosaic of different intelligence inputs".

There was, he insisted, no link between this attack and Iraq. "Operations in Afghan-istan are conducted completely independent of any operations in other sectors," said Col King. "We have done a series of major operations. This is one more in a continuing series."

When Mr Rumsfeld, the US Defence Secretary, was asked yesterday whether there was a link, he was swiftly interrupted by General Richard Myers. It was pure coincidence, the US chairman of the joint chiefs of staff told a Pentagon press conference.

An 800-soldier battalion – part of the 82nd Airborne Division, which unsubtly calls itself the "White Devils" – and US special forces descended on three villages in the Maruf district and reportedly searched hundreds of homes.

The Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar, who has been on the run since the ousting of his regime, is said to have family links in the area. Reports quoted unnamed military sources in Washington as saying that America had detected radio transmissions coming from caves above the villages.

The new American offensive raises the question of whether it was part of a revitalised hunt for bin Laden, possibly based on intelligence extracted from al-Qa'ida suspects recently arrested in Pakistan, includingKhalid Sheikh Mohammed.

There have been reports that the CIA and the US military have been searching for him at Ribat Qila, where the borders of Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan meet, although this is well to the west of yesterday's offensive.

There has been a surge of media reports about the net closing in on bin Laden, which were sparked by Mohammed's arrest. These were deliberately fuelled by the American and Pakistani security officials – the famous "unnamed sources" who manipulate the media now more than ever.

Both countries stood to benefit, although for different reasons, by advertising their progress in the bin Laden hunt to the outside world. But the Americans have others in Afghanistan in their sights, including those who fire Chinese-made unguided rockets at their soldiers – usually without much effect – or at the forces of the interim government, which has yet to establish anything close to control over the country.

Two days ago, three soldiers loyal to President Karzai were found with their throats slit at a border post near the Pakistani border, an attack which, according to Abdul Razzak Panjshiri, a security chief in the Spin Boldak area, has been blamed on the Taliban.

An offensive launched by the Americans in the mountains in the same area not long ago clearly failed to flush out everyone.

And then there is Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. Two decades ago the Pakistani intelligence services were filling his pockets with American taxpayers' money, via the CIA, to fuel the resistance against the Soviet occupation. He later became an Afghan prime minister and one of the most brutal players in the civil war of the early 1990s. And now, marching under the banner of Islamist fundamentalism, he is fighting his former American paymasters and has, they claim, forged links with al-Qa'ida.

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