With U.S. warplanes unleashing their most punishing bombing raids in four days on the Taliban's front lines, a top Pentagon official conceded Wednesday that Afghan resistance is more formidable than expected and likely will be the target of a "long, long campaign" against terrorism.
"They are proving to be tough warriors," said Rear Adm. John Stufflebeem, deputy director of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. "I am a bit surprised at how doggedly they're hanging on" to their power.
Nearly three weeks after the U.S. began bombing terrorist and military targets, Stufflebeem offered a blunt assessment of a war that may last longer than originally expected. The first acknowledgment that any terrorist has been affected by the military strikes came Wednesday, when a Pakistani militant group tied to Osama bin Laden said a U.S. bomb killed 22 of its members.
But bin Laden, prime suspect in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks that killed more than 5,000 people in the United States, and Mullah Mohammed Omar, supreme leader of the Taliban government that has sheltered him in Afghanistan, apparently still are operating within the country.
Secretary of State Colin Powell testified Wednesday before Congress that he still hopes the U.S. could complete its military mission by the time the Muslim Ramadan holiday begins in mid-November, or by the time winter sets in.
But Stufflebeem appeared less optimistic, saying there was little evidence that the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance was advancing rapidly on the capital Kabul and the key northern city of Mazar-e Sharif. In Afghanistan, rebel leaders conceded that their plan to capture Mazar-e Sharif had failed and said their offensive would now be bogged down for at least a few weeks.
Stufflebeem said the Taliban has begun a new strategy of hiding among civilians, bunking its troops in university dormitories, and hiding vehicles and arms in mosques and schools, hoping to avoid U.S. bombs that target military sites. He vowed that the U.S. would root out any fighters taking refuge in residential areas, perhaps by using ground forces.
"For Mullah Omar to not see the inevitability of what will happen surprises me," he said. "But we are prepared to take however long is required to bring the Taliban down."
The Taliban said it had begun arming villagers to fight off an expected assault by Western ground troops.
All week, U.S. warplanes have pounded key Taliban positions north of Kabul, along the front that separates Taliban forces and troops with the Northern Alliance, the rebel group that has fought the Taliban for five years.
Wednesday's raids on the Taliban front line drew intense missile fire from Taliban gunners. Heavy bombing also was heard near Kabul's airport, and U.S. air strikes also hit Mazar-e Sharif, Taliban and Northern Alliance officials said.
Alliance: We must wait
Yet alliance leaders said Wednesday's heavy bombing would not be enough to weaken Taliban forces and allow the outnumbered rebel troops to launch a major offensive on either city.
Mohammed Yunis Kanuni, the alliance's interior minister, acknowledged that alliance leaders had expected too much from the U.S. bombing. "Our war in Mazar-e Sharif . . . was a mistake," he said. "Why? They weren't serious about this. All the [fighters] thought the Taliban would be finished by the bombing."
The alliance's ambassador to Uzbekistan said its troops would not be ready to move on Mazar-e Sharif for at least a month.
The announcement was a stunning reversal from a week ago, when the rebels said they were on the verge of taking the city, an important crossroads in northern Afghanistan.
Besides sitting on major supply lines, Mazar-e Sharif has two airfields that could be used as a launching pad for U.S. military operations as well as the delivery of humanitarian aid.
Mohammad Hashad Saad, the acting ambassador in Uzbekistan, said the U.S. had been coordinating its air assault with rebel forces and was striking the right targets. "It is useful but not enough," he said.
Running low on ammunition, the Northern Alliance closed the border Wednesday with Tajikistan, its only supply line to the outside world, so it could restock on ammunition along with food and aid for refugees.
"We haven't received any help," said Baryalia Khan, the alliance's deputy minister of defense, speaking from an army outpost near the border crossing to Tajikistan.
As a result, Khan said, the group has had to go on the world market in search of the ammunition and hardware that it needs. He added he had heard radio reports of Russia's commitment to support the Northern Alliance, but the Russians have failed to produce any supplies.
In a further sign of the unexpected difficulty of the campaign, Britain's top military officer said he doubted the war could be won without extended ground operations far more involved than last week's commando raid by U.S. troops into southern Afghanistan.
"It is conceivable that we could conduct an operation for a period of days and, perhaps, conceivably even weeks," Adm. Michael Boyce told The New York Times.
"The quick pinprick operation will be valid for certain targets where you have really good intelligence," Boyce said. "Sometimes one might have to stay longer to achieve a proper reconnaissance of the area you are looking at."
British submarines fired missiles at targets in Afghanistan when the military campaign began on Oct. 7, and British forces have since flown reconnaissance missions and refueled U.S. jets in the air.
But British commandos and ground forces have yet to participate.
On Capitol Hill, Powell told a congressional committee that although several nations are offering to build a new Afghanistan, any post-Taliban government should be broadly representative and not dictated by any one country, especially neighboring Pakistan.
"It won't work if any one country dictates what the future of the government will look like," he said.
The U.S. and its allies fear that a dangerous civil war may erupt between the ethnic Uzbeks and Tajiks who make up the Northern Alliance and the country's Pashtun majority if the Taliban falls without a coalition government ready to replace it.
In Afghanistan, the first reports that terrorist allies of bin Laden had been killed came Wednesday, as leaders of the outlawed Harakat ul-Mujahedeen militant group said 22 of their members died when a U.S. bomb struck a Kabul house where they had been meeting Tuesday.
The Harakat ul-Mujahedeen, based in Pakistan, is one of the 27 groups and individuals that had their assets frozen by the U.S. after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
Several of those killed were senior commanders with the Harakat ul-Mujahedeen, or "Movement of the Holy Warriors." The group is also one of the major organizations battling Indian forces in the heavily disputed Kashmir region.
A group trying to bring the bodies of 11 of the dead Pakistanis back to Pakistan for burial was stopped at the border, Taliban officials said.
"They said, `You wanted to fight with the Taliban, then you can bury your dead in Afghanistan,'" said Noor Mohammed Hanifi, the local Taliban security chief in Torkham, Afghanistan.
In Karachi, about 4,000 supporters of the group protested, demanding that the bodies be buried in Pakistan. Police fired tear gas to disperse the stone-throwing crowd.
Throughout Afghanistan, thousands of refugees streamed to the borders to escape the U.S.-led bombing, now in its 18th day. Relief work got an unexpected boost when Uzbekistan officials agreed to partially open their borders for the first time in five years to allow humanitarian aid packages to be delivered.
As many as 100,000 Afghan children are in danger of dying of starvation this winter, according to the United Nations.
Pakistan, under international pressure to let in Afghans fleeing U.S. air strikes, allowed the UN to open a camp near a crossing where refugees and border guards have clashed.
U.S. planes also made two more humanitarian food aid drops in Afghanistan, bringing the number of rations distributed by air to more than 785,000 since the war began Oct. 7. The rations are meant to assure Afghans that the military campaign being waged is against terrorism, not against them.
But the Pentagon suspects the Taliban may be poisoning these rations, or spreading stories claiming that they contain poison, to turn the Afghan population against the U.S., Stufflebeem said.
"If the food comes from America it will not be tainted," Stufflebeem said. "But if it comes from Taliban control, [Afghans] must be careful."
Meanwhile, U.S. officials said they had retrieved a Black Hawk helicopter that crashed in Pakistan as it flew support for last week's commando raid. U.S. forces had tried to retrieve the wreckage last week but were fired upon, apparently by Pakistani protesters.
On Wednesday, Pakistani officials secured the area, allowing U.S. troops to make the recovery.
Michael Kilian reported from Washington and Tribune foreign correspondent Colin McMahon reported from Tashkent, Uzbekistan. Tribune staff reporters Stephen Franklin in Afghanistan and Alex Rodriguez in Chicago and Tribune news services contributed to this report.