U.S. ground troops were airlifted into Afghanistan in large numbers for the first time Monday, and more are expected soon. Some 1,000 Marines have now been deployed outside Kandahar, the last bastion of the Taleban. The move represents a significant ratcheting up of the U.S. commitment in Afghanistan.
The deployment of U.S. Marines is viewed as both a deepening of the U.S. commitment in Afghanistan and a bold challenge to the Taleban on its home turf.
Kandahar is well fortified. Some reports have it defended by as many as 5,000 foreign fighters and 12,000 Afghan Taleban. But the prize the United States seeks, Osama bin Laden, may be inside, as well as his protector, Taleban supreme leader Mullah Omar.
Brian Cloughley served as Australian Army military attache and has firsthand knowledge of Afghanistan. He says the United States will need a lot more than 1,000 or so Marines to deal with Kandahar. "But we have to remember that although 1,200 - I think it's 1,200 - Marines sounds a lot, and of course they're very good troops and they're extremely well-armed, they aren't going to be able to take Kandahar if there is resistance, because they're going to have to fight their way through. And that's very, very difficult. They are experts of course in urban warfare, but it takes an awful lot of people to fight their way through a city, even one of a medium size like Kandahar," he says.
But the deployment of the U.S. marine contingent is not an isolated event. It comes amid stepped up political efforts to bring peace to the war torn country.
In Germany this week, Afghan leaders are gathering for a conference on their country's political future.
Kenton Keith, spokesman for the U.S.-led anti-terrorist coalition, says the military and political actions are closely intertwined. "The coalition has been an integral part of moving this process forward. The military activity has insured that the political process can start sooner rather than later," he says.
That process has been facilitated by the rapid collapse of Taleban control. All of Afghanistan's major cities, with the exception of the stronghold of Kandahar, fell easily to the Northern Alliance. But that, says Colonel Cloughley, had little to do with the Alliance's military prowess. "It's classic Afghanistan. If you can't beat 'em, join 'em. And it's obvious there have been various guarantees, probably cash offered to various leaders of the Taleban who, simply, in the old, classic Afghan style, swapped sides when it's convenient," he says.
The foreign Taleban are not likely to surrender, in part because they fear what will happen to them if they fall into Northern Alliance hands. Coalition spokesman Keith says the Alliance has pledged to treat prisoners humanely, and that it has done so wherever it has triumphed. "What I can say is that whether the prisoners are Afghan or non-Afghan, we have been assured by the Northern Alliance forces that they would be treated humanely. We have no reason to think that that has not been the case," he says.
But asked if the foreign Taleban's fears of harsh treatment are justified, Colonel Cloughley has a different view. "Of course they're justified. They are very nasty people and they are somewhat unpopular with the Northern Alliance and with a lot of other people within Afghanistan. And they can expect no mercy. I don't think that a guarantee given by one spokesman of the Northern Alliance is worth anything," he says.
Reports from northern Afghanistan indicate some foreign Taleban prisoners may have been executed after they were captured or surrendered to the Northern Alliance, but those reports have not been independently confirmed and Mr. Keith says he has seen no evidence of such killlings.
Mr. Keith says the international attention focussed on the Bonn conference is a guarantee there will be no massacre or bloodbath of captured foreign Taleban.