Afghanistan: The War Escalates

Stung by critics wondering when victory might come, the U.S. inches closer to a ground campaign

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President George W. Bush's first meeting with the Homeland Security Council

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The U.S. and its allies have started taking up that challenge, with more devastating air strikes on Taliban soldiers, more U.S. commandos, and a broad new public relations offensive to refute the Afghan rulers' audacious claims. The Taliban's successful propaganda stunts accusing America of indiscriminately killing civilians — such as a tour of various rubble piles in Kandahar last week — have suddenly made the selling of the war strategy almost as crucial as the strategy. The White House and Downing Street have created new Coalition Information Centers, campaign-style spin shops in Washington, London and Pakistan aimed at countering Taliban claims as soon as they are issued. And this week President Bush will make his plea to give war a chance, as he meets with Tony Blair of Britain, Jacques Chirac of France and Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan and delivers three speeches on war and terror — including his maiden address to the U.N. General Assembly, scheduled for Saturday.

When he goes before the world, the President will need to provide evidence that the military component of his campaign against terrorism is delivering more than just ruins. The Administration craves some kind of victory in Afghanistan that Bush can wield as a trophy in New York. Military officials told Time they are monitoring several cave compounds in the mountains between Kabul and Kandahar where they believe bin Laden may be holed up. Last week U.S. warplanes began pummeling the area, hoping to kill bin Laden or at least collapse passageways inside the cave to effectively immobilize him. "For all we know," an officer says hopefully, "he could already be dead."

But Administration officials will settle for less if they can get it. Last week's thundering B-52 raids emboldened Northern Alliance soldiers, who a week earlier had despaired of America's inexplicable restraint. General Abdul Nasir, a senior Alliance officer based near Kabul, told Time that a strike last Wednesday took out three Taliban tanks, 15 trucks and two artillery pieces. "Compared to bombing in earlier days, these strikes were particularly effective," says Nasir. "It's clear the enemy took heavy casualties." Other Alliance commanders said the B-52 strikes in their areas had been far less accurate and deadly — the Taliban soldiers are so dug in that even carpet bombing can't dislodge them. "When the U.S. bombs fall," says Shahjan, a deputy commander in Farkhar, near the Taloqan front, "the Taliban just run into caves in the hills." And when the bombers move on, the Taliban soldiers emerge, largely unscathed. That may change as more U.S. targeting specialists take the field. Last week, news that U.S. troops dressed in civilian clothes and baseball caps had been spotted at a helicopter pad north of Kabul buoyed rebel spirits.

Analysts say that 10,000 pro-Taliban troops may mass to defend Kabul, which means further U.S. bombing still must precede a Northern Alliance assault on the capital. An offensive is more imminent in the vital crossroads city of Mazar. Kudratullo Hurmat, an aide to Northern Alliance commander Ustad Mohammed Atta, says, "The U.S. bombing is helping a lot. We're ready for a big offensive in the next two or three days." Fresh AK-47s, rockets and tanks supplied by Russia have found their way to the Alliance. Atta's forces remain bogged down 10 miles from the city, and two previous advances have been repelled by the Taliban's force there. But a Taliban representative interviewed by Time last week admitted to nervousness about a U.S.-backed assault on Mazar. The Taliban fear that Mazar will be the first in a succession of falling dominoes, providing a base for the Alliance to clear a northern tier of opposition territory and open up supply routes from Uzbekistan. The Taliban warns of savage combat in Mazar that could ensnare American special forces. "The best Taliban fighters are in Mazar," says the official. "They've pledged not to leave the city alive."

That's the kind of slit-throat warfare the Pentagon tried to prepare the public for early in the conflict. But so far there hasn't been much of it. Some planned commando infiltrations have been sabotaged by sandstorms, sleet and Taliban resistance. Bad weather caused the crash last Friday of an MH-53 Pave Low helicopter in northern Afghanistan, injuring four crewmen. U.S. F-14s blew up the wreckage of the downed helicopter to prevent its secret equipment from falling into hostile hands. Pentagon officials dismissed Taliban claims that it had shot down the helicopter and killed all on board.

The halting rhythm of the military operation has complicated the Pentagon's sales effort and exposed some early assessments as naively optimistic. Nonetheless, the American public's support has stayed aloft. "It's not a tough sell right now," says a top Rumsfeld aide. "If you had an election on the war in America, we'd win it hands down because the wounds are fresh. But they won't be fresh six months from now."

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