U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld says the campaign in Afghanistan is entering a dangerous phase of uncertain duration. But the Defense Secretary says the choice for the Taleban is surrender or die.
Mr. Rumsfeld says the Taleban is losing ground as opposition forces move on the Taleban stronghold of Kandahar in the south and U.S. troops search caves and villages for Osama bin Laden and other al-Qaida leaders.
But he warned that U.S. forces are entering a particularly risky phase of the fighting. He expects them to lose some personnel to casualties and capture as the Taleban are squeezed.
"It is a confused situation in the country. The amount of real estate they have to operate on is continually been reduced. The noose is tightening, but the remaining task is a particularly dirty and unpleasant one," he said.
Mr. Rumsfeld told NBC television that Taleban forces defending Kandahar outnumber Pashtun opposition troops. Moreover, they have the backing of fierce foreign supporters who he said have resorted to killing some Taleban members to prevent them from surrendering.
The U.S. defense chief says victory over the Taleban will require U.S. air support and possibly U.S. ground reinforcements. But he emphasizes that if the Taleban do not surrender, they will be killed.
The United States, he notes, will accept no Northern Alliance deal allowing Taleban leader Mullah Omar to escape the country or remain without facing prosecution. Secretary of State Colin Powell stressed that point in an interview on CBS television.
"He is somebody also who has to be brought to justice. We have heard different reports about him trying to cut [make] a deal and there are no deals to be cut. We are in search of him as well," he said.
As for Osama bin Laden, Defense Secretary Rumsfeld says he believes the al-Qaida leader is still in the southern or eastern part of Afghanistan.
He estimates U.S. ground troop strength in Afghanistan at between 1,500 and 2,000, including 1,000 U.S. Marines recently deployed to Kandahar. He confirms that non-American coalition forces are also on the ground, but says more at not yet present because of resistance from the Northern Alliance.
"Afghans are historically skeptical about non-Afghans, so when we try to bring in coalition forces to assist us, sometimes we have difficulty," he said. "That is to say, the forces on the ground have not been quite ready to bring in other countries besides the United States. Now, we have some coalition, non-U.S. partners in there, but it takes a good deal of discussion with those opposition forces, and that is what has caused some of the delays."
News reports say the coalition troops are working with the U.S. Marines in southern Afghanistan.