- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 29, 2002

U.S. forces, after eight months of war in Afghanistan, still do not know the number of remaining al Qaeda fighters they need to capture or kill to declare final victory.
The imprecise intelligence has caused planners to realize that anti-terror reconnaissance and sweeps will continue in Afghanistan for many months, as the Pentagon acknowledged yesterday that the enemy is regrouping in Pakistan.
"We are seeing we are going to be in Afghanistan longer than we thought we would be in Afghanistan," said a senior administration official involved in anti-terror policy. "We don't have a good picture of where they went, how many stayed or how many were there."
The Pentagon said an undetermined number of the enemy remains in Afghanistan, while others are trying to reassemble in friendly tribal areas of western Pakistan. Their ultimate objectives: mount attacks on coalition troops and disrupt the emerging Afghanistan government.
"Given the porous nature of the border around the country, it's likely there are al Qaeda and Taliban in lots of different places," said Pentagon spokeswoman Victoria Clarke. "If we knew exactly where some of these people were, then we probably would have them . It's very hard to know exact numbers. They tend not to be in large groups."
Another development slowing down the al Qaeda eradication efforts is the amount of time the military is spending on peacekeeping in Texas-size Afghanistan, where a relatively small U.S. force of 7,000 works from two main bases in the north and south.
When the war wound down after the fall of the Taliban in December, Pentagon planners believed less than 25 percent of mission time would be devoted to training a new national army and police, and keeping the peace among rival warlords and tribes. But today, U.S. Central Command, which is running the war in Afghanistan, is devoting just as much time to "nation-building" as it is to war operations, two administration official said.
"We're spending just as much, or a lot more, effort on Afghan stability than we are on chasing down al Qaeda," said a military officer. This source added that a new threat is beginning to emerge: the hundreds of ruthless bandits who have roamed Afghanistan's rugged terrain for decades, preying on peasants and the occasional Western traveler.
Gen. Tommy Franks, who heads Central Command, is said to be optimistic about long-term results, but is not overly optimistic when he briefs Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld. "Tommy believes if we're patient and make the right decisions, the long-term prospects for Afghanistan will be OK," a senior Army officer said.
"I think it's going to take a long time to kill the last guy," the officer said. "But I tell you what, they better not try to mass." This was a reference to the last time Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda army and hard-core Taliban assembled south of Gardez in eastern Afghanistan, only to be eviscerated by the largest coalition ground assault in the war, Operation Anaconda.
"From now on, I don't think you're going to see anything but small-scale harassing," the officer said.
The fact that the war has shifted from a broad strategic campaign to one of battle tactics and nation-building prompted Gen. Franks to create a new in-country command to run the operation. Lt. Gen. Dan K. McNeill, commander of the Army's 18th Airborne Corps, has been tapped to head Combined Joint Task Force Afghanistan, based at Bagram air base north of Kabul. When he assumes command in June, Gen. McNeill will have a direct line of communication to Gen. Franks in Tampa, Fla.
Despite uncertainty, administration officials say the goals they have met so far exceed expectations stated on Oct. 7, when President Bush authorized the beginning of air strikes to dismantle bin Laden's terror structure inside Afghanistan.
Listing achievements, the officials say ousting the hard-line Taliban was a major goal in removing bin Laden's protective cocoon and putting him on the run. Air and ground assaults have killed thousands of Taliban and al Qaeda fighters. More than 600 are in custody, with some providing valuable intelligence on how bin Laden's organization operates.
Meanwhile, Afghanistan has taken the first tentative steps in ending decades of tribal warfare and establishing some type of moderate democratic rule.
"Just in Afghanistan alone I think the results have been impressive," Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz said recently. "We've gotten rid of the theologian Taliban. We've basically made Afghanistan impossible for terrorists to organize and operate out of. We've captured and killed large numbers, and the ones that are left are on the run."

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