Gearing Up For The Next Battle

A badly wounded man is carried away from the blast site at Qissa Khawani bazaar in Peshawar, Pakistan, on Thursday, May 28, 2009. AP Photo/Mohammad Sajjad

According to intelligence reports, more than 2,000 Taliban and al Qaeda fighters, along with some of their senior military commanders, are hiding out in the mountains that stretch along the border with Pakistan scattered in small pockets, trying to regroup.

"These folks have melted into the mountains," says Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. "They've melted into the villages. They've gone over the borders, and the first chance they have they'd like to come back."

The intelligence reports, which all come from local Afghan sources, still must be confirmed by surveillance aircraft and by putting reconnaissance teams on the ground before the U.S. can take any military action against the remaining Taliban and al Qaeda.

In preparation for the battle next time, an advance element of 1,700 British combat troops has begun arriving in Afghanistan. And the U.S. is moving six A-10 Thunderbolt ground-attack aircraft into Bagram air base just north of Kabul, putting them much closer to those suspected pockets of Taliban and al Qaeda.

The A-10 can fly low and slow over the target firing a 30-millimeter canon in its nose. It is more maneuverable and more heavily armored than both the Apache helicopters which were badly shot up during Operation Anaconda and the AC-130 gunships, which operate mainly at night because they are so vulnerable to ground fire.

If the intelligence reports are accurate and there really are more than 2,000 enemy fighters still up in the mountains, search-and-destroy operations against al Qaeda will almost certainly continue into the spring and summer, long after the snows have melted.

No one will say when American troops will go into action next, but where is an open secret. The U.S. is arming and paying local warlords to fight al Qaeda and Taliban holdouts near the town of Khost.

But as allies they could prove to be more a problem than an asset.

Soldiers of the pro-American governor get $200 a month, a small fortune in a country where the average wage is a dollar a day.

But the Americans also pay an Afghan warlord who is the governor's rival to fight al Qaeda, and confusion reigns.

One man said he was defending U.S. troops under attack at Khost airport when an American bomb took off his leg. Abdullah says the Americans are naive about who is who here. That's a dangerous lapse in a town where guns abound and al Qaeda is seeking recruits.

Local commanders claim leaflets that say it is "an order of God" for Afghans to "fight the Americans and their puppets" were prepared in Pakistan by al Qaeda and Taliban who escaped Operation Anaconda.

One commander says the fighters are hiding in two towns inside Pakistan, which contradicts claims made when Anaconda wrapped up.

"Do I believe that large numbers of terrorists escaped this operation and moved into Pakistan. No, I do not," said Gen. Tommy Franks, head of the U.S. Central Command.

Ties between Khost and the tribal areas of Pakistan are so close that business here is done in Pakistani, not Afghan currency.

U.S. troops are honing their skills for operations that could include pursuing fleeing al Qaeda and Taliban into Pakistan. But tribal leaders along the border have already issued a dire warning: stay out or risk having even more enemies to fight.

In other war-related developments:

  • American troops will soon begin helping to train an Afghan army to try to maintain security and guard the borders in that still-unstable nation, Defense Secretary Rumsfeld said Monday. The United States will send no additional troops to do the training, instead using special forces troops already in the country, when they are not engaged in other tasks, Rumsfeld said.

  • British-led peacekeepers on duty in Kabul said Monday they found six cars rigged with explosives, apparently intended to kill troops patrolling the Afghan capital. The vehicles were watched, but a spokesman for the 4,500-member security force says no one tried to move them into position for an attack and no arrests were made.

  • The U.S. Embassy has reopened in Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina. It was shut down to the public last Wednesday when officials cited unspecified threats. Friday it shut down entirely. An embassy spokeswoman says they "reassessed the situation" and decided it was "appropriate to reopen."

  • An earthquake shook a wide area of Afghanistan and northwestern Pakistan on Monday, but there were no immediate reports of damage or casualties. The U.S. Geological Survey in Golden, Colorado put the preliminary magnitude at around 6 on the Richter scale and said the epicenter was about 105 miles north of the capital, Kabul.
    • Joel Roberts

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