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US Officials Cautious on Afghan Situation


U.S. defense officials report encouraging progress by opposition forces in Afghanistan but caution that the situation remains fluid and acknowledge top Taleban and al-Qaida leaders remain at large.

The Pentagon says Northern Alliance forces are still making gains south of Kabul, especially near Jalalabad, while other anti-Taleban groups in the south are now rebelling, in particular near Kandahar. For their part, U.S. Special Forces in southern Afghanistan are trying to identify withdrawing Taleban and al-Qaida forces, so they can be targeted with air-strikes.

Rear Admiral John Stufflebeem of the military's Joint Staff calls the overall progress encouraging but cautions that much remains to be done. He tells reporters at the Pentagon that the Taleban and al-Qaida appear to be abandoning cities they previously controlled, but says it is unclear if they are fleeing, retreating or perhaps regrouping.

"To believe that we have a collapse and therefore are now watching a dismantlement of Taleban to the point where they are ineffective, that could be a dangerous assumption," said Adm. Stufflebeem. "We still believe that we have a hard job in front of us and it may still take some time. We have no lost focus on the fact that we are going to go after and root out al-Qaida."

Admiral Stufflebeem says al-Qaida forces have been hiding in caves and tunnels and the Taleban is at home in southern Afghanistan. He says it may be their objective to lure U-S forces into that environment.

Even so, he says U.S. forces and their opposition allies will be prepared to do what is necessary.

"The U.S. is prepared, if necessary, to conduct a counter-guerrilla war. We should also presume Northern Alliance opposition groups or, for that matter, all opposition groups are familiar with this kind of guerrilla warfare, especially since it happens in a country they are experienced in," said Adm. Stufflebeem.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, meanwhile, says the main U.S. objective remains the capture of top Taleban and al-Qaida leaders. But touring the ruins of the World Trade Center in New York, Mr. Rumsfeld says that has not yet happened though the prospects are good.

"Finding handfuls of people is indeed like finding needles in a haystack and it's a complicated process. But because of all the pressure that has been put on across the globe, the drying up of bank accounts, the numbers of arrests that have been made, the interrogations that have been held, the intelligence that's been gathered, I think every day we have a better chance of achieving our goals," said Mr. Rumsfeld.

The Pentagon says that so far, U.S. military authorities have not taken into custody any Taleban or al-Qaida officials.

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