- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 27, 2001

Taliban militia forces are battling to hold their last remaining bastion in the southern Afghan city of Kandahar and could end up fighting to the death, the Pentagon's top general said yesterday.
"In Kandahar, it's sort of the last bastion, we think, of Taliban resistance," Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters.
Fighting was reported around Kandahar yesterday as several hundred U.S. Marines landed on an airstrip captured Sunday about 12 miles from the city. It is the first base inside Afghanistan for U.S. ground troops.
In Mazar-e-Sharif, five U.S. special-operations commandos were injured by an errant U.S. air strike they had called in to help quell an uprising by captured Taliban fighters.
The five soldiers were evacuated by air to a hospital in neighboring Uzbekistan and were listed in serious condition.
Mixed reports from the area indicate that the last Taliban holdouts around Kandahar could either surrender or refuse to give up, Gen. Myers said.
Gen. Myers said he agreed with Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld who said a fight to the death is a more likely option.
"We think they'll dig in and fight, and fight perhaps to the end," Gen. Myers said.
In Afghanistan, a Taliban spokesman quoted by the Afghan Islamic Press as saying the Islamic movement's forces would fight U.S. troops "to our last breath."
Anti-Taliban forces had moved to within five miles of Kandahar and heavy bombardment was reported near the city yesterday.
Gen. Myers said there were no reliable estimates of the number of Taliban fighters in Kandahar. One U.S. official said that about 4,000 Taliban soldiers remain in Kandahar.
The focus of U.S. military operations is shifting toward Kandahar following the fall of the northern city of Kunduz over the weekend.
Mr. Rumsfeld said the fight at Kunduz was "a long, hard battle and a lot of people were killed" and some prisoners were taken.
Taliban fighters also have formed a pocket of resistance near the northeastern city of Jalalabad, near Kabul.
Kandahar is where most of the senior Taliban leadership is believed to be right now, including Mullah Mohammed Omar, the top Taliban leader.
The U.S. Marines' first battle took place yesterday against a column of Taliban armored vehicles that came close to the new, captured air base. The 15 tanks and armored infantry vehicles were struck by F-14 jets flying from the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson, a senior military official said.
Mr. Rumsfeld, appearing with Gen. Myers at a Pentagon briefing, said captured Taliban fighters are being interrogated as part of the hunt for Osama bin Laden, the al Qaeda leader believed to be behind the September 11 terrorist bombings.
"We get information [about terrorists in Afghanistan], to be sure, but how far it moves us in the direction we want to go, it has to remain an open question until we get where we want to go," Mr. Rumsfeld said, referring to efforts to find and kill terrorist leaders.
Regarding the prisoner uprising, which was ongoing yesterday, Mr. Rumsfeld said it involved some of the foreign Islamic fighters who are fighting on the side of the Taliban.
Mr. Rumsfeld said U.S. Special Forces troops were working with the local opposition commander about 100 miles west of Mazar-e-Sharif when the uprising started, some time on Sunday.
Hundreds of prisoners were able to get hold of weapons and escaped from a fort that was being used to hold them. At least 300 of the prisoners were killed in the fighting, according to news agency reports from Afghanistan.
Mr. Rumsfeld said putting down the uprising could be difficult.
"If you have people who are willing to have hand grenades wrapped around themselves and blow themselves up so they can kill a half-dozen other people in close proximity to them, the thought that they'll surrender readily is not likely," he said.
Asked about the outcome, Mr. Rumsfeld said: "I'm hopeful that some will surrender. I suspect some won't, and I suspect the result of that will be that the opposition forces will kill them."
The al Qaeda and non-Afghan troops were "among the toughest of the fighters and the most determined and the least likely to surrender," Mr. Rumsfeld said.
Mr. Rumsfeld declined to comment on reports that an American working in the region of the uprising near Mazar-e-Sharif had been killed.
"Until the compound is secured, which, at the last word I received this morning, it has not been, we will not know the answers to those questions," he said.
The defense secretary said the global war against terrorism is "making some progress," although he expressed concerns that the United States needed better international cooperation.
"We've applied steady pressure on terrorist networks across the globe," Mr. Rumsfeld said. "We've frozen some of their assets, and in my view, we need more cooperation from more countries if we're going to dry up their financial assets."
Administration officials have pointed to Saudi Arabia in particular as one state that has moved too slowly in taking steps to block funds being used by terrorists. Several charity groups based in Saudi Arabia have been used by al Qaeda terrorists for raising funds.
Mr. Rumsfeld said most Taliban strongholds have fallen to opposition forces and the Taliban leaders "are clearly forced to move around and having difficulty managing their remaining capabilities and assets and forces."
Gen. Myers said nine planned targets were bombed on Sunday, including cave and tunnel complexes used by Taliban and al Qaeda forces.
"We also remain focused on providing support to opposition groups throughout Afghanistan and on establishing airfield hubs for humanitarian assistance efforts," he said.


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