The commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan said yesterday the Taliban military is “fractured” and the next step in the campaign will be to destroy Osama bin Laden and his al Qaeda terrorists blamed for the September 11 attacks.
“It’s been said that we are tightening the noose, and in fact that is the case. We’re tightening the noose. It’s a matter of time,” Army Gen. Tommy Franks told reporters at the Pentagon.
Gen. Franks, commander in chief of the U.S. Central Command, spoke as fighting intensified in northern Afghanistan near the town of Kunduz, where several thousand Taliban and al Qaeda fighters are dug in amid fierce fighting against the opposition Northern Alliance.
U.S. warplanes dropped dozens of bombs on targets in the Kunduz area, witnesses told the Associated Press in Afghanistan. “On one hill, there were a lot of Taliban, and after the U.S. bombs hit, there was nothing living there,” said refugee Jaglan Mohammed Sakhay, 20.
Fighting also is continuing in the south, where the Taliban is under fire from opposition tribes around its key stronghold of Kandahar.
As the Taliban’s grip on Afghanistan faltered, the Islamic movement’s leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar, defiantly called yesterday for the destruction of the United States.
“The real matter is the extinction of America, and, God willing, [America] will fall to the ground,” Mullah Omar told Britain’s BBC radio.
However, last night, a senior U.S. official told Reuters news agency that the Northern Alliance apparently had captured some senior Taliban leaders, although neither Mullah Omar nor bin Laden were among them.
“We have heard that the Northern Alliance may have come into possession of some Taliban leadership earlier today,” the official said, adding that the alliance had told the United States of the captures.
The official added that the United States hopes the seizures will provide intelligence on the whereabouts of Mullah Omar and bin Laden.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, appearing with Gen. Franks, said the United States will succeed in hunting down bin Laden, chief suspect in the terror attacks against the United States.
Mr. Rumsfeld said U.S. intelligence monitoring of Afghanistan may not succeed in pinpointing bin Laden because it is not possible to pinpoint everything electronically.
Terrorists could flee in helicopters, in trucks or on mules, he said. “It’s a large country with a lot of borders, and one has to be realistic. I think we’ll find him either there or in some other country,” said Mr. Rumsfeld.
As for the Taliban, Mr. Rumsfeld said the defeated militia could cross the border, wait to join the fight later, or it could give up its weapons and “blend into the communities.”
“They can go up in the mountains in the caves and tunnels. They can defect join the other side change their mind, go back,” he said. “So it is not possible to answer the question as to the circumstance of the Taliban.”
Despite the unpredictability, Mr. Rumsfeld said “it is not a good time in Afghanistan to be part of the Taliban. That is good.”
Gen. Franks said U.S. troops in the south are working with southern anti-Taliban forces by providing advice, helping with supplies and providing arms.
U.S. military forces succeeded in killing a group of terrorists and senior Taliban leaders during an air strike on buildings near Kabul on Tuesday, the Pentagon said.
U.S. special-operations commandos also are engaged in “direct action” operations against terrorists in Afghanistan, in addition to their role in advising opposition forces, said Gen. Franks.
In the north, Mr. Rumsfeld said fighting was fierce since the Taliban forces there are dominated by ideologically hardened Arab and other foreign al Qaeda fighters.
“It’s heavily al Qaeda, as mixed in with probably a number of people from other countries, as well as some Taliban,” said Mr. Rumsfeld.
Gen. Franks said about 2,000 to 3,000 “hard-core” al Qaeda fighters are “infested” among the estimated 10,000 troops encircled by opposition Northern Alliance forces.
In Kandahar, U.S. forces are cooperating with several operations groups near the city.
“We are applying pressure in the vicinity of Kandahar,” said Gen. Franks. “We have special operating forces operating in that vicinity as well, working on the routes, interdicting traffic. And so that’s what we find in Kandahar. Kandahar is still very much under threat control, although we do see signs of some fracturing there as well.”
Gen. Franks said the military campaign strategy is aimed at “condition-setting” a progression of first defeating Taliban air defenses, and then adding Special Forces on the ground and conducting air strikes to “take the Taliban apart or fracture it.”
“And we did that,” he said.
“All the while, we have been setting conditions to be able to get closer and closer to the core values of this campaign” to destroy the al Qaeda terrorist network in Afghanistan and around the world, said Gen Franks.
As the Taliban is splintered, more U.S. military operations will focus on “the alligators” the general’s term for the terrorists.
The Taliban also is losing control of the key city of Jalalabad. Gen. Franks said as of yesterday morning “Jalalabad was threatened” but he could not confirm that control has shifted to the opposition.
Meanwhile, Pakistan sent tanks and armored vehicles to border posts to strengthen defenses in case fighting spilled over from Afghanistan.
Gen. Franks told reporters he would not gloat over critics’ predictions as late as last week that his military operations were too timid and ineffective.
Asked if he felt “exonerated” by the fracturing of the Taliban since last weekend, Gen. Franks said he does not worry about criticism.
“I don’t feel exonerated, because I never felt vilified,” he said. “I am simply a soldier doing his job, and I’ll continue to do that.”
Several nations offered yesterday to send troops to Afghanistan in the near future to help stabilize the country as part of a post-Taliban settlement, including Britain, Jordan and Canada.
Mr. Rumsfeld said it is “highly unlikely” that the United States will send peacekeeping troops.