The Ground War: Into The Fray

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U.S. special forces seen inside a building believed to be near Kandahar

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For now, that seems as far as Washington is willing to go to prop up the alliance. Given the alliance's own history of brutality, the Administration is wary of allowing it to gain too much steam in the race to succeed the Taliban--which would unsettle the U.S.'s jittery ally in Islamabad. Some Northern Alliance fighters carped that by trying to pacify Pakistan and keep the rebels in check, the U.S. has blown its chance to lead a broad-based, multifront assault that would dislodge the Taliban. "This is a very complex area," counters a senior Defense Intelligence Agency official. "I mean, Afghanistan makes Bosnia look homogeneous, O.K.?"

Try telling that to the 3,000 or so anti-Taliban mujahedin who a few weeks ago flocked to Jabal-us-Saraj, just north of Kabul, and crowded its streets as they prepared to march on the capital. Last week the crowds had vanished, and alliance commanders complained bitterly about the U.S.'s failure to strafe Taliban front lines defending Kabul and allow the rebels to make a move on the city. Horan Amin, the alliance's representative in Washington, says that "from certain quarters in the State Department, we have been told that they would not be happy for us to head toward Kabul." Alliance military officers boast that they could take Kabul even without American backing, but their own politicos have instructed them to stay put. The limited ordnance U.S. warplanes have dropped on or around Taliban lines outside Kabul--by week's end they had unloaded only half a dozen bombs--left alliance troops fuming. "It's a joke," said General Said Khel, one of the men who would marshal an advance on Kabul if the attack takes place.

An additional danger for American forces entering Afghanistan is that resentment of the U.S.'s perceived disengagement from the plight of the alliance will fester into outright opposition toward any American meddling in Afghan affairs. "We do not need the Americans to help us anymore," says Mohammed Farazi, an operational commander with alliance forces in the Dast-e-Qale region. "They should let us fix our country by ourselves." Aid workers from Kabul told TIME that a sense of disillusionment is growing there too with the way the U.S. has handled the war. "People are stunned to see nothing is happening politically," says one, "as the impact on the people is getting worse." Even in northern Afghanistan, anti-Taliban country, locals are incensed at news of civilians in Kabul and Jalalabad killed in air strikes. "If the Americans care about us," asked Faisal Benawar, an almond vendor in the town of Yang e-Qale, "why are they killing innocent Afghans?"

The best chance for containing anti-Americanism lies in achieving U.S. goals in Afghanistan as quickly as possible. Though Taliban representatives claim that the regime's leaders are alive and well, evidence suggests that American military power has both the Taliban and al-Qaeda on the run. Early last week the Pentagon deployed the AC-130 flying howitzers for a withering cannon assault on Taliban targets in and around Kandahar in southern Afghanistan. Pentagon planners have sliced the country into "engagement zones" near Kabul and Kandahar, green-lighting U.S. pilots to attack any military targets in those designated "kill boxes" at any time of the day. In Kandahar last week the headquarters of the regime were deserted; locals said Taliban officials were hiding in mosques and in civilians' homes.

Even before Saturday's reported blitz against Omar, the Taliban's supreme leader had hit the road. American officials privately confirmed reports that a Predator drone armed with Hellfire missiles had earlier missed Omar's convoy by minutes. In Kandahar local residents said U.S. missiles demolished part of his house. Since then, he has bounced from one mountain hideout to the next. Abdul Salam Zaeef, the Taliban's ambassador to Pakistan, indicated that it took him two days to travel from Quetta, just across the border, to Omar's hideaway. But inconvenience has not demoralized the Taliban chief, Zaeef told TIME: "He and the Taliban fighters are excited."

Lodged, presumably, somewhere in the canyons and dugouts of an Afghan mountain range, Osama bin Laden waits for the reckoning. If he has heard by now that U.S. special forces are on the prowl, the news was delivered by a courier; Pentagon officials say they have cut off al-Qaeda's ability to communicate by phone. Last week U.S. pilots hit at least one bin Laden deputy: a bombing raid near Jalalabad killed Abu Baseer al-Masri, an Egyptian Islamic militant said to be close to bin Laden's right-hand man, Ayman al-Zawahiri.

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