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After Tora Bora, US hunts alone

Burned by Al Qaeda escapes at mountain caves, the US now uses larger elite units with little aid from local tribes.

By Philip SmuckerSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / January 28, 2002


Bewildered nomads cringed in the dust Friday as more than 100 US fighters in light brown camouflage jumped into six choppers that lifted off into the blue sky, ending another dramatic anti-Al Qaeda raid in eastern Afghanistan.

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The two-day operation - which amounted to a siege and a search of a large village just south of the former Al Qaeda base at Tora Bora - had all the characteristics of a revamped US military strategy to weed out the last of Osama bin Laden's fighters.

Rather than rely on local Afghans to fight the war on terror, the US military is now raiding suspected hideouts in southern and eastern Afghanistan with units consisting of 100 to 300 elite US troops and only a handful of local interpreters.

This hands-on, go-it-alone approach presents new risks, but is different from the battle for Tora Bora last December. Then, the US deployed two- or three-dozen special operations soldiers to call in airstrikes and help coordinate the thousands of Afghan soldiers doing the bulk of the fighting. The result was the destruction of the base. But senior Al Qaeda members along with Arab and Chechen foot soldiers fled along smuggling routes through mountain passes and into Khost Province, some of them on their way further south into Afghanistan and others across the border into Pakistan.

Too little, too late?

Charles Heyman, a leading British military analyst, says that the new US tactics in Afghanistan may be "too little, too late" to catch fleeing Al Qaeda fighters.

"The initial stages of the war in Afghanistan were superbly executed, especially the airstrikes that destroyed the Taliban on the ground," says Mr. Heyman, the British editor of Jane's World Armies, a London-based military analysis publication. "But after that, there were never enough forces on the ground. And if you don't have enough forces on the ground, you can't dictate events on the ground. That is one of the reasons so many escaped."

Mr. Heyman adds that, while there are still some tempting Al Qaeda and Taliban targets inside Afghanistan, the new US tactics may not be enough "to get the guys you really want."

Gen. Tommy Franks, commander in chief of US Central Command, told reporters in Pakistan on Saturday the hunt for bin Laden and Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar continues. "We do not know the location of bin Laden. We do not know the location of Omar. What we do know, every day, is that we receive fresh intelligence information and some of it turns out to be good information and some of it not," he said.

The current US strategy, which makes limited use of bombing and which puts US fighters at the "sharp end" of counterterrorist operations, also faces new challenges.

It employs the US military's rapid airlift capabilities that are superior, by far, to those of any other army in the world. With more regional airports, like the one in Khost, now secured, US helicopters can race towards so-called "targets of opportunity" in a flash. But these tactics also usually require US soldiers to perform the riskier role of rooting through Afghan homes for clues as the whereabouts of Al Qaeda cells.

Afghan military and intelligence sources in eastern Afghanistan say that remaining Al Qaeda cells are dispersed, both straddling the Pakistani border and also deep in southeastern Afghanistan's vast mountain ranges. In some towns there are two Al Qaeda operatives, in other villages three and four fighters.

This all adds up to an expensive, often fruitless, game of cat and mouse in the Afghan highlands.

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