Strikes inflict little harm on terrorist group
Taliban may have to be ousted first, if US is to find Al Qaeda leaders, officials say.
WASHINGTON — Despite three weeks of punishing attacks, the US-led military campaign in Afghanistan is so far having only a limited impact on its ultimate objective of destroying terrorists, including Osama bin Laden and his Al Qaeda group.
That summation by defense and intelligence experts is now leading American officials to suggest that the US-led alliance may have to overthrow the Taliban first to stand much likelihood of getting at Mr. bin Laden and his associates. But as Taliban forces dig in for winter, frustration is growing in some quarters over the tempo of the campaign to end the radical Islamic regime.
These and other military setbacks in Afghanistan - including errant US missiles, the execution of a key anti-Taliban rebel leader by Taliban forces, and slow momentum by the Northern Alliance opposition forces - lend truth to early Bush administration warnings on the war on terrorism:
It will require patience, as well as tools other than the blunt instrument of military force.
In the long run, even if US and allied military forces succeed in ending Taliban rule and stamping out Al Qaeda in Afghanistan, the threat to America from global terrorism cells in dozens of other countries will remain, experts and officials warn.
While Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld says the US military is doing "everything humanly possible" to track down Al Qaeda and Taliban leaders, he stressed that the overarching goal "is to deal with the terrorist networks that cover the globe."
So far, the US military campaign in Afghanistan - while broader than past US antiterrorist strikes such as the August 1998 cruise-missile attack near Kabul and other cities - has done little directly to weaken the power of the shadowy, loosely organized terrorist group, experts say.
"These strikes are unprecedented in scope and breadth, but I don't think they will be sufficient to prevent terrorism from the Al Qaeda network," says Michele Malvesti, a former Middle East terrorism analyst at the Pentagon now at Tuft University's Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy.
Experts question how much Al Qaeda has been hurt, for instance, by US demolition of about a dozen abandoned training camps, described by a senior US military official as the terrorists' "Quantico" (a reference to the US Marine Corps base in Quantico, Va.).
"These guys can live off the smell of an oily rag," says Stanley Bedlington, a retired CIA counterterrorism unit official. "They can live in a lean-to, they can live in a cave,... they require very little infrastructure."
Similarly, experts say that US strikes on what military officials describe as "Al Qaeda forces" are only peripherally linked to the terrorist group. For instance, US commanders have targeted what they call "Al Qaeda forces" in the Taliban's 55th Brigade, known as an elite, fanatical group of Arab and other non-Afghan fighters. Yet while members of the 55th Brigade may have received funding or training from Al Qaeda, experts say they are part of the Taliban military.
"The people in the trenches in Afghanistan are not the elements who would form a terrorist cell," says John D. Moore, a former Defense Intelligence Agency analyst who covered Afghanistan.
Neither surveillance nor strikes on compounds and caves have so far succeeded in finding, killing, or capturing bin Laden or other Al Qaeda leaders in Afghanistan. Above all, experts and officials say, that signals a lack of high-quality intelligence.
Mr. Rumsfeld hinted last week that US intelligence showed that bin Laden was on the move but that it hadn't located him "sufficiently before the fact" to allow for action. Short of pinpointing where bin Laden will be, "the tyranny of distance" would prevent US forces from acting in time, says Col. Daniel Smith, a retired Army intelligence officer.
US defense officials and experts describe the challenge of piecing together patterns of Al Qaeda activity from a flurry of intelligence - much of it technical intercepts and much less of it from credible human sources.
"It's like drinking from a fire hose," one US defense official said of the volume of intelligence.
While hoping for a breakthrough in the terrorist hunt, US defense officials increasingly paint a difficult, drawn-out scenario: First destroy the Taliban military, then help to replace the Taliban with a regime that will deny Al Qaeda safe harbor, and finally try to capture bin Laden and his associates - before they escape Afghanistan.
Some analysts say this strategy might work, although it could take years. "They can't last forever, tough as they are," says Mr. Bedlington. "It's a question of whether we have the patience or stamina. If we are willing to carry on..., despite criticism from the Muslim world, then we have a very good chance of destroying the head of the snake." Others, though, say eliminating bin Laden will not end the threat, because the dispersed, nonhierarchical Al Qaeda has no real "head."