BAGRAM AIR BASE, AFGHANISTAN — US troops won't be leaving the scarred battlegrounds of Afghanistan any time soon. Far from crumbling after the destruction of the Taliban's national government, Al Qaeda and Taliban fighters have proved to be tenacious guerrilla warriors, lying low, launching hit-and run-attacks and fighting back when confronted.
The commander of US forces in Afghanistan says that the US and its allies fighting the war against terror are "up against an adaptive enemy that has managed to change its operational tactics."
Lt. Gen. Dan McNeill says that Al Qaeda and Taliban forces are avoiding large formations, moving in small groups that like "to snipe at us from a distance and leave the area as quickly as possible."
In western Pakistan yesterday, US allies found out that Al Qaeda fighters are still active and dangerous. A standoff between Pakistani troops and suspected Al Qaeda militants quickly turned into a firefight that took the lives of 10 soldiers and two men believed to be Chechen members of Al Qaeda.
But while General McNeill made it clear that the Taliban is hiding and engaged in hit- and-run tactics, he also affirmed that heavy US combat units would need to remain in Afghanistan for at least another year to carry out larger operations when needed.
"I think we still need numbers and infantry-type units, US or otherwise," he says. "I do concede this war has moved to certainly an appearance of unconventional warfare. But in unconventional warfare there will still be tactical situations where other types of forces, other than special forces, will be of great utility."
The US military currently has some 7,000 US troops on the ground in Afghanistan with tens of thousands more in the region.
But while US combat forces were still engaged in skirmishes and small battles early this spring, the war has now shifted its focus to training a new Afghan army and engaging in a broad-based "hearts and minds" campaign with the Afghan public.
"Humanitarian assistance is part and parcel of what we're doing here," says the US general. "Typically the enemy depends on several things, one is support of the populace. They also depend on the land. We're seeking to deny both of these things" by working more closely with the Afghans.
McNeill suggested that a new Afghan army steeped in antiterrorist tactics would provide the US military and its allies with the best possible "exit strategy" for Afghanistan, a country with a long history of bogging down foreign militaries.
"As the Afghan army begins to have some trained units they should begin to pick up part of this fight," he says. "Over time, as the country becomes more stable and we go through this process, you could make the argument that there will be less need for certain elements of the coalition."
Some have been critical of US forces for not apprehending Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. But McNeill says the commander in chief's vow to catch the Saudi-born militant "dead or alive" was incidental to a broader statement he made last year, which is, "You're with us or you're against us." He adds that, "as we begin to close with those that are against us, whether they be terrorists or those who have supported those terrorists, my job is to close with and destroy them."
The general says that Pakistan is still a major ally in the US-led war on terror and adds he was still sifting through reports that between 400 and 1,000 Al Qaeda operatives had slipped out of Afghanistan and ended up in Pakistan.
"I do think that Taliban and Al Qaeda are still in Afghanistan, though, and I think you have to conclude Afghanistan is still important for them," he says. "If we allow them sanctuary, if we allow them to regain support of the populace which they could then we will probably give them the opportunity to come back. So, Afghanistan is still significant, in my view. I think that this is still a war any way you cut it."