For U.S. forces, war in Afghanistan heats up
From Christiane Amanpour
ORGUN, Afghanistan (CNN) -- Two years after the attacks of September 11, 2001, the leaders of the al Qaeda network and its Taliban allies remain at large and there are indications that the remnants of their forces are regrouping in Afghanistan.
With some 9,000 U.S. soldiers pursuing the holdouts and nearly daily battles between Taliban loyalists and Afghan government forces, Afghanistan -- the first battlefield in the U.S. war on terrorism -- remains a hot zone.
This summer has seen an upsurge of militant activity in Afghanistan. With the most intense fighting in more than a year taking place, U.S., Afghan and coalition forces killed between 150 and 200 Taliban last week in eastern and southern Afghanistan, according to Lt. Gen. John Vines, commander of Combined Joint Task Force 180, the U.S. ground force in the country.
In the months following September 11, the United States and its allies swept into the remote, mountainous country, scattering Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda and driving its Taliban hosts out of power.
But as the second anniversary of the terrorist attacks that killed more than 3,000 people in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania approaches, bin Laden and Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar remain at large. U.S. troops continue to pursue them in a difficult search that one American described as "a real cat-and-mouse game."
"We're walking uphill. We've got upward of 50 to 60 pounds on our backs. It's hard to breathe. We're not used to the area," Lt. Justin Stoddard of the 10th Mountain Division said after a two-day patrol in the mountains of eastern Afghanistan.
The American forces describe this area, less than five miles (7 kilometers) from the Pakistan border, as the most evil place in Afghanistan -- the scene where they've suffered the most casualties.
Two U.S. soldiers died and a third was wounded August 31 after fighting with unknown attackers in Paktika province, south of Kabul, according to U.S. Central Command.
Mullah Omar has started issuing threats against American troops. Vines said that while Omar cannot win back much territory, he can make trouble for U.S. troops.
The Taliban leader also has the capability of encouraging others to cause problems, the lieutenant general said.
"He moves furtively. He has what is known as good trade craft," Vines said. "... It means that he knows how to avoid exposure to being caught. He's very good."
A former White House counterterrorism adviser said he quit his post with the National Security Council because he felt the Bush administration had taken its eye off the ball in Afghanistan when it started to focus on Saddam Hussein.
"We've given the Taliban and al Qaeda an opportunity to retrench and to start to come back... and that should be a real warning call for everybody that there's a lot more still to be done in Afghanistan," said Rand Beers, the former special assistant to the president for combating terrorism.
After leaving the Bush administration, Beers volunteered as a national security adviser for U.S. Sen. John F. Kerry's campaign for the 2004 Democratic presidential nomination.
Enough resources for reconstruction efforts?
Some senior U.S. military officials said that the Bush administration has tried to fight the war on terror on the cheap in Afghanistan and has not committed enough soldiers or spent enough money or effort to reconstruct the country.
The White House rejects those views, pointing to U.S. projects such as starting up an Afghan national army.
"What we found is an exceptionally positive response," said David Sedney, the charge d'affaires at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, noting that Afghans appreciate it "when they see a multiethnic army that doesn't rob and pillage -- that instead stands up straight and is honest and upright and works for the good of all the people of Afghanistan."
The Bush administration belatedly has acknowledged that more aid is needed. It's already diverting $1 billion in emergency assistance to prop up the Afghan government. Also, in his address to the nation Sunday night, President Bush said that additional money for military and reconstruction needs in Afghanistan would be included in an $87 billion appropriations request to fund the U.S. campaign there and in Iraq.
"We remember what happened on September 11. That's why we came to Afghanistan -- to get rid of the Taliban and al Qaeda, the terrorist state that was there," Sedney said. "And that's the fundamental reason why we're here. In terms of the additional resources, that's going to make us able to accomplish those goals better."
Much of the funding will go toward accelerating the buildup of the Afghan army. So far, 5,000 troops have been trained. U.S. officials said they hope to have 10,000 troops in place by this time next year.
A senior U.S. diplomat said President Bush sees additional funding as "good business," enabling the United States to get out of Afghanistan sooner.