America's alliance with Afghan ground fighters has produced a strikingly efficient campaign to oust the Taliban regime from power - but also potential frustrations, as the Pentagon frets that top Taliban and Al Qaeda terrorists may get away during the current push to end the war.
Even as anti-Taliban Afghans consolidated their hold and negotiated a possible surrender of Al Qaeda forces in the mountains around Tora Bora, US defense officials stressed that the US is far from achieving its aims in Afghanistan. Indeed, the Pentagon is warning that its Afghan allies could neglect, or even hamper, the No. 1 remaining US mission: rooting out Taliban and Al Qaeda terrorist leadership.
In essence, US Defense officials acknowledge that Washington's heavy reliance on a proxy ground force, while carrying huge benefits, also comes at a price.
"Up until now,... there has been identity of interests between us and the Afghans we're supporting in terms of a common desire to get rid of the Taliban regime," deputy defense secretary Paul Wolfowitz said Monday. "With that regime gone, our objectives may not be quite as high [of] a priority for them, and they may start pursuing some local objectives that interfere with us."
As can be the case in proxy wars, the top US goal of "bringing justice" to the Taliban and Al Qaeda is diverging somewhat with urgent efforts of the interim Afghan government to bring stability to the war-torn, hungry nation, US and Afghan military experts say.
"We are more concerned with the higher-level folks, and the Afghan opposition is much more concerned about the post-war environment than we are," says Mackubin Owens, a strategist at the Naval War College in Newport, R.I., and a former marine.
Indeed, when it comes to hunting down US enemies, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld compares reliance on the fractured Afghan opposition to the old game of trying to pluck a prize from a glass box by using mechanical arms. "You use the handles and you try to turn them up and down and twist them" - meanwhile dropping the prize again and again, he says. "It's an awful lot easier if you just order somebody to go do something or you have the power and the physical presence to do it."
According to Mr. Rumsfeld and US military commanders, evidence exists that at least some senior Taliban and Al Qaeda members have escaped Afghanistan - and the possibility exists that Afghan tribes have so far allowed some senior Taliban leaders to get away. Moreover, Afghan resistance forces are competitive, fragmented, and in some cases known to exaggerate the facts as they pursue US foes.
Lacking a big US ground presence, Washington has used the carrot of American aid and multimillion-dollar rewards - and the threat of revoking such assistance - to push Afghan allies to do its bidding. "To the extent our goals are frustrated and opposed, obviously, we would prefer to work with other people," Mr. Rumsfeld said last week in reference to anti-Taliban forces near Kandahar.
In the case of Al Qaeda, US defense officials worry that Al Qaeda fighters and terrorists could either remain at large inside the country or flee Afghanistan to destabilize other nations. They prefer to capture Al Qaeda members for interrogation, or, failing that, to see them killed.
"We are not in control of the situation" around Tora Bora, Rumsfeld said yesterday.
At press time, the fate of a large group of Al Qaeda terrorists and leaders holed up around the mountainous Tora Bora region - possibly including Osama bin Laden - seemed to hang in the balance. Afghan eastern alliance forces gave this ultimatum: Surrender Wednesday morning Afghanistan time, or die. The alliance is backed by US Special Operations teams directing bombers that have demolished many caves, including one destroyed by a gigantic, 15,000-pound "daisy cutter" bomb this weekend that may have killed Al Qaeda leaders, officials said.
As for the Taliban, top Pentagon officials are urging the capture of Mullah Mohammed Omar and other Taliban leaders, who disappeared from Kandahar this weekend amid the surrender of the Taliban. They reject as "totally unacceptable" earlier suggestions, made by anti-Taliban leader Hamid Karzai, that Mr. Omar could receive amnesty, but they left open the possibility that, once apprehended, Omar could be tried in Afghanistan.
Only two or three Taliban leaders have been captured, while many have slipped away like "rats" leaving a sinking ship, US officials say.
"We didn't have the whole perimeter of the ship guarded, so those people are loose," Mr. Wolfowitz said, calling the escapes "almost inevitable."
Nevertheless, as Pentagon officials grapple with the frustrations of a proxy ground force, they cite strategic and political advantages of using US air power to help Afghan fighters - and of keeping American ground troops to a minimum.
Limiting the number of US ground troops and keeping them "low profile" have helped America to avoid the impression that it seeks to occupy Afghanistan, US officials say. That approach also dampened Afghans' historical suspicion of foreign intruders.
At the same time, the United States has deflated its radical Islamic opponents by depriving them of Americans to shoot at, while keeping US casualties very low. "We have devised a way of going to war without really going to war," says David Tretler, a military strategist at the National War College. "Here we have a situation where they can't even touch us ... and that may be very demoralizing to them."
Moreover, Afghan forces have superior knowledge of the terrain and are therefore better equipped in some ways than US ground troops for hunting down Mr. bin Laden and Omar, experts and officials say. "The more we can get local allies to do that job for us, the better," says Wolfowitz, referring to the cave-by-cave hunt for Al Qaeda members.