Final target, Kandahar

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After nearly two months of US military operations, America’s war on terrorism in Afghanistan is nearing its final act. The southern city of Kandahar and its surrounding areas are under heavy siege from American and allied forces and the coalition has continued to step up pressure on remaining Taliban and Al-Qa’eda forces.

“The Special Operations Forces and their close coordination with the opposition groups, our air strikes — they’re all being applied to bring this pressure up to: One, get the leadership, and two, set conditions where others may deliver the leadership to us, or get them themselves,” said Rear Adm. John Stufflebeem, a Pentagon spokesman on Monday.

Since the northern Afghan city of Mazar-i Sharif fell on 9 November, Al-Qa’eda and Taliban troops have continued to lose ground. The capital city of Kabul and Kunduz have also fallen into opposition control. US and coalition forces are now concentrating on the cities of Kandahar and Jalalabad as the war in Afghanistan enters “dangerous” territory.

“We’re entering a very dangerous aspect of this conflict. There is no question about it,” said US Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld in an interview with NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday. “It is a confused situation in the country. The amount of real estate they have to operate on has continually been reduced. The noose is tightening, but the remaining task is a particularly dirty and unpleasant one.”

Rumsfeld said that the number of US forces on the ground in Afghanistan is around 1,500 to 2,000. US forces have been working with opposition leaders to capture senior Taliban and Al-Qa’eda leaders. Late on Sunday, allied forces bombed the Kandahar area, targeting the airport east of the city. Two bridges leading out of Kandahar were destroyed on Monday in an effort to cut off the Taliban. US Marines may join opposition forces for the final siege on Kandahar, the last major Taliban stronghold.

As the hunt for Al-Qa’eda head Osama Bin Laden escalates, American warplanes increased their bombings, targeting caves and tunnels in eastern Afghanistan on Monday where senior Al- Qa’eda leaders are believed to be hiding. Taliban leader Mullah Mohamed Omar and other Taliban commanders are believed to be still in Kandahar and Taliban officials have said they will fight to the death there. Defence Secretary Rumsfeld said that pro-Taliban forces in the Kandahar area include Afghans, but are mainly Arab, with some Pakistanis, Chinese and Chechens, who he said, “tended to be the most determined and the toughest fighters.”

With the pressure building, the remainder of the operation in Afghanistan would appear to be coming to a close. Stufflebeem said, however, that American forces are prepared for the “long duration.” “I’m not sure that any of us have a sense, or a feel, for how soon before we will know that we have the senior leadership of the Taliban controlled or suppressed or killed or in [our] possession, or the same for Al-Qa’eda. And so we’re prepared to stay for as long as we have to do that, and don’t have a sense of time on that,” said Stufflebeem.

US military operations against Afghanistan began on 7 October, after the Taliban refused to hand over Bin Laden, the prime suspect in the 11 September terrorist attacks in New York and Washington. Since the war began, there has been at least one reported American combat death in Afghanistan. Taliban prisoners killed CIA agent Johnny Michael Spann on 25 November during a four-day riot near Mazar-i Sharif. There have also been reports of numerous Afghan civilian deaths.

In an interview with Pakistani television last Thursday, Rumsfeld said he believed the prime objectives of the international coalition against terrorism have been met. Rumsfeld said this has been achieved through global cooperation and the sharing of intelligence information, military cooperation, the freezing of Al-Qa’eda bank accounts, law enforcement and the arrests of suspected members of Al-Qa’eda cells.

Rumsfeld also commented that the US has no interest in keeping troops in Afghanistan. “Our interest is in working with other countries to stop terrorists from killing people. Our only interest in Afghanistan is to deal with Al-Qa’eda and to change the leadership in Afghanistan so that there is a stable, broad-based government. Then that’s up to the Afghan people. It is not for us to decide.”

Rumsfeld said that once the Taliban and Al- Qa’eda network in Afghanistan have been handled, the United States has only a humanitarian interest in the country. Since the war began, the Defence Department has airdropped over two million “Humanitarian Daily Rations” into Afghanistan. They continue to also drop leaflets, most recently in the Kandahar and Jalalabad area.

While the war in Afghanistan rages on, talks in Bonn, Germany, on forming a post-Taliban regime in Afghanistan have proven productive. Delegates of four factions of the opposition have agreed on the framework of the political structure of the interim government in Afghanistan. The UN plan proposes a 29-member interim executive council to govern Afghanistan that will consist of a chairman, five deputy chairmen and 23 council members. The top position in the interim administration is expected to go to the Rome faction, which represents former Afghan King Mohamed Zahir Shah.

The council would govern Afghanistan for six months, at which time an independent council of Afghan elders would then convene a tribal gathering, or loya jirga, to determine a future permanent government. The agreement also calls for a temporary group of multinational peace-keepers to be deployed in Kabul and possibly other areas of Afghanistan.

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