- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 5, 2002

Heavy fighting continues near the eastern Afghan town of Gardez. American troops, along with others from at least six allied nations, are trying to capture or destroy a force of several hundred Taliban and al Qaeda fighters in the rugged mountains near the Pakistani border. They are attempting to cut off the enemy's escape route through Gardez's back door along the Shah-e-Kowt road into Pakistan. Winning this battle requires boots on the ground, in the kind of fighting Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Gen. Tommy Franks have warned us would come. So far, at least seven Americans have been killed.

This battle should be no surprise, and more like it are sure to be fought as the remnants of the Taliban and its terrorist cohorts are found. The war in Afghanistan is by no means over, and it may not be for some time. The interim government of Hamid Karzai will not be able to stabilize the country soon. Some old warlords are returning to their old, habitual tribal rivalries and the radical Iranian regime is interfering in western Afghanistan, helping Taliban and al Qaeda regroup and rearm there. The Iranians have long since earned their membership in the "axis of evil." Their continued direct support of the Taliban and al Qaeda may earn them a promotion to the top of our list of enemies. The conduct of the war, and Mr. Karzai's job, are hard enough without Iranian interference. President Bush should tell the Iranians directly to withdraw. If they don't, we should force them to before their influence becomes further entrenched in the area.

Mr. Karzai's regime may be hurting itself, and us, by his release of prisoners taken in Afghanistan. Several weeks ago, some of the prisoners taken at Mazar-e-Sharif where CIA officer Johnny "Mike" Spann was murdered and American Taliban John Walker was captured were released and may have rejoined the conflict. Mr. Karzai's policy of releasing the Afghan members of the Taliban and turning the non-Afghan members over to us should be the topic of a pointed discussion between Mr. Karzai and Mr. Bush. As much as we need to support Mr. Karzai, his release of these prisoners may help fuel battles like the one going on near Gardez. Prisoners taken in wartime are usually held until the war is over, and this one clearly isn't.

America's soldiers, sailors and airmen are paying a price for the victory they are winning for us. That price the butcher's bill should be paid once, not twice because prisoners are released too soon. Continued intervention by the Iranians must be answered swiftly and decisively by American force in Afghanistan. And sooner or later, we must reach into Iran itself. In the east, those who surrender near Gardez should be interned until a peace is reached. Those who refuse to surrender should feel the full force of America's determination to destroy terrorism.

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