- The Washington Times - Friday, December 7, 2001

The impending fall of Kandahar by no means ends the U.S. campaign in Afghanistan, military officials said yesterday, warning that weeks of gritty ground fighting lie ahead to uproot the foreign terrorists in the country.

Kandahar, whose surrender could come as early as today, is the last Afghan city held by the Taliban militia. But even with its fall, Osama bin Laden and his al Qaeda terrorist army remain at large.

"We still have hundreds, if not thousands, of targets in Afghanistan. If we leave now, those Afghan al Qaeda that remain who have filtered back into society will begin their havoc again," said a Pentagon official. "The Arab al Qaeda will find it harder to operate without Taliban protection, but if we leave they might be able to slip to other countries more easily. We still have a lot of work to do."

An Army officer said that in any ground offensive, such as the opposition effort to take Kabul in the north and Kandahar in the south, advancing forces bypass "residual forces" that must be mopped up later.

"In Afghanistan, they've got caves and protected terrain they can go to," said the officer. "There are pockets scattered all around the country. As the weather gets colder, we have sensors that can find these folks, use intelligence sources and find these guys."

One fear of the Bush administration is that, in the chaotic post-Taliban Afghanistan, the foreign al Qaeda fighters mostly Arabs, Chechens and Pakistanis will escape across the country's porous borders.

They then could re-emerge in other al Qaeda-friendly countries. Officials say Somalia, Sudan and Yemen are three nations where bin Laden's men could blend into society and help form new terrorist cells.

"With respect to al Qaeda of all levels, you don't want them milling around the country and you don't want them leaving the country because they're just going to go out and kill people in some other country, so they need to be stopped," Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said yesterday. "It would be premature to suggest that once Kandahar surrenders that, therefore, we kind of relax and say, 'Well, that takes care of that,' because it doesn't."

When the war began, the Pentagon estimated the Taliban militia had at least 4,000 al Qaeda fighters, who were assigned to protect bin Laden and his top people. U.S. officials say they believe at least half that number have been killed by bombing raids and by anti-Taliban opposition forces. Perhaps 700 alone were killed in late November during a prison uprising near the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif.

The largest pocket of terrorist fighters lies in the mountainous area known as Tora Bora, on the northeastern border with Pakistan south of Jalalabad. Opposition leaders say about 1,000 warriors are in the hills and cave complexes first dug in the 1980s to help the mujihadeen defeat the occupying Soviet army.

Senior U.S. officials say they are convinced Tora Bora is where bin Laden is hiding. The administration has accused the Saudi exile of masterminding the September 11 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington.

Officials declined to say exactly what types of intelligence reports led them to conclude bin Laden was moving among cave hide-outs there.

But the CIA and the Pentagon had gained access to more intelligence sources since the northern half of the country fell to the Northern Alliance early in November. CIA field officers and special operations forces had interviewed al Qaeda prisoners.

The officers also were working with Eastern Alliance tribes, who claimed bin Laden was seen in the area less than a week ago.

Small pockets of al Qaeda soldiers are scattered around the north. Officials said several of them also left Kandahar in southern Afghanistan and were presumed to be planning a guerrilla war against the new government.

The Pentagon said yesterday warplanes continued recently stepped-up bombing of cave entrances in Tora Bora in an effort to deny hiding places to al Qaeda forces.

Scores of Army special-operations troops have descended on the area to try to find the enemy and direct the strikes. Some Pentagon officials believe bin Laden will be found soon.

"They're able to see the caves that are active," said Gen. Peter Pace, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. "They can see the caves that are not, and we're able to provide much more direct support to them."

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