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 , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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.

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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.

Locals find hidden weapons

At the nomad village at Bak, for example, some 200 US fighters worked for 48 hours searching homes but came away with no prisoners. Nor did the US special forces discover a massive Al Qaeda weapons cache reportedly hidden by Arab fighters. It was, however, later uncovered by the nomads after the US forces left. It was handed over to Afghan commanders. Nomad elders, who helped unearth the cache, said they wanted to remove any other possible "reasons" for another US raid.

Interim Afghan leader Hamid Karzai is in Washington today, where a spokesman says he will ask for "closer and greater coordination" between the US military and Afghan authorities."

In southeastern Afghanistan, Pashtun commanders, anxious to work more closely with the US military, are lining up outside US special forces headquarters. The Afghans insist that there is no substitute for "local intelligence."

"The problem is that there is no coordination between my own forces and the US special forces now operating in Paktika," says Commander Akhbar Khan, one of hundreds of Afghan officers in eastern Afghanistan who claim to want to enhance their working relationships with US forces.

"The people in our area are not anxious to see the Americans searching their homes alone, and so I want to ask them to hire us as guides," he says, adding that the cooperation would pay off with better information and results.

Commander Akhbar says, for instance, that three times in recent days he has come up against pickup trucks filled with Arab Al Qaeda fighters, but he could do nothing to alert the US military about his encounter. "I don't have enough men [or equipment] of my own to take on the heavily armed Al Qaeda fighters," he insists.

Senior Afghan officials in eastern Afghanistan say that they have captured and already released persons they believed to be "senior Al Qaeda figures" - most of them before US forces arrived in their provinces.

Other senior Al Qaeda figures, whose locations are well known to local commanders, have still not been reported to the US forces.

The Taliban's intelligence chief, Qari Ahmad Ullah - previously reported "killed in action" by the Pentagon- is said to have addressed a large group of Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters in eastern Afghanistan last week. He called on supporters to lay landmines to prevent US military movements and to "kill US forces and escape to safety," said Afghan sources.

With US forces using helicopters to whisk them to and from operation zones, landmines are not likely to become a major obstacle. But attacking the remaining pockets of Taliban and Al Qaeda will also require good information.

Both Pentagon and Afghan military reports suggest that Al Qaeda fighters are regrouping in the country's southeast. Small to medium-sized concentrations of Al Qaeda fighters have been reported in Paktia, Paktika, Khost, Ghazni, Zabul, Kandahar, and Oruzgan Provinces.

"Al Qaeda has also taken a lesson from the last few months," says Heyman at Jane's World Armies. "It is unlikely that we will ever see such a concentrated Al Qaeda force, as we saw in Tora Bora, again."

There were signs in eastern Afghanistan this week that the US military might be coming to terms with the idea of using a few Afghan fighters, particularly Pashtun from the regions where the Taliban and Al Qaeda are still known to be operating.

A US officer who identified himself as "Colonel Blackburn" told a group of Pashtun commanders in Khost that the US military was keen to "make a special Afghan force to attack Al Qaeda," according Afghan officials present at the meeting.

Afghan commanders said they were ready to offer 5,000 fighters to the effort. The US officer chuckled, however, and said that the anti-Al Qaeda force, which would receive special training from the US military, would likely have only about 300 Afghan fighters - a relatively small force in comparison to the thousands of Afghans sent into the battle at Tora Bora.

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