In a surprisingly downbeat assessment, a senior Pentagon official said Wednesday that the Taliban has proved to be a tough foe and warned that U.S. forces face a difficult struggle to dislodge the regime's troops from the crowded cities of Afghanistan.
Rear Adm. John D. Stufflebeem, a senior official of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said recent moves suggest that the Taliban will protect itself by moving its forces into cities, where the U.S. military's technological advantages are constrained by the difficulties of intelligence-gathering and efforts to spare civilians.
Stufflebeem said at a Pentagon briefing that he has been "a bit surprised at how doggedly [Taliban forces] are hanging on to their power." The forces of the radical Islamic regime have "proven to be tough warriors," and they "are in an environment that they, obviously, are experts in."
While some Pentagon officials have privately offered similar comments, Stufflebeem's remarks were a departure from the Pentagon's positive public assessments about the course of the military campaign in Afghanistan. Last week, another senior Pentagon official proclaimed that the Taliban's combat power had been "eviscerated."
Stufflebeem's comments came five days after U.S. forces conducted a nighttime raid near the southern city of Kandahar, the Taliban's spiritual center, that had appeared to mark a new phase in the campaign. At the least, Pentagon officials had clearly hoped that the raid would undermine the morale of the regime, which the United States accuses of shielding Osama bin Laden and his terrorist network.
In his remarks Wednesday, Stufflebeem also accused the Taliban of planning to poison humanitarian food supplies that the United States and world organizations are delivering to Afghanistan and then place the blame on America.
He did not provide any evidence to support the charge. But he said, "We are confident in the information that we have that they may intend to poison one or more types of food sources and blame it on the Americans."
Another official, who asked not to be named, said U.S. officials believe that the Taliban might poison some of the food packets by squirting toxic liquids into them with hypodermic needles.
U.S. Will Encourage Afghans to Use Food
Stufflebeem and other officials said they intend to do all they can to publicize their view that Afghans should eat food that has come directly from the United States and other sources outside the country and avoid the food that may have passed through government hands.
Also Wednesday, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said the United States won't let Ramadan, the Islamic holy month of fasting that begins in mid-November, constrain the military campaign if the operation hasn't achieved its goals by then.
"We are sensitive to Ramadan, but we can't let that be the sole determinant of whether or not we continue our military activities," Powell said. "The important point to remember is, we have military objectives to accomplish."
Some U.S. allies have expressed concerns that continuing U.S. attacks during Ramadan could fracture already fragile support for the campaign by some Arab and other Muslim nations.
Stufflebeem's concerns about the difficulties of urban fighting within Afghanistan are widely shared in the Pentagon, which has worried that U.S. forces would be drawn into the kind of bloody building-to-building fighting that they briefly experienced in Somalia in 1993 and that the Russians have dealt with in the separatist republic of Chechnya more recently.
Anxieties within the Pentagon have been rising in recent days because of signs that the Taliban regime has been moving troops and equipment--and perhaps its leaders--into civilian centers. The reports indicate that troops and equipment are being housed in mosques and schools to shield them from the U.S. bombardment that has focused largely on areas outside the cities.
Stufflebeem said U.S. forces can draw on "clever ways" to fight an enemy in urban settings. But he warned, "This is going to be a long, long campaign."
High-tech intelligence from spy planes and satellites has far less value in urban fighting, and soldiers must worry about the dangers that lurk in the next building or behind the next wall. Enemy forces can use the protection of "human shields." They can also hole up for months, relying on the protection of booby-traps and the assistance of friendly locals.
During World War II in Europe, U.S. troops blew away whole city blocks to deprive German forces of such protection. But the Pentagon believes that is not an option in Afghanistan.
Instead, Stufflebeem said, U.S. forces would wage urban fighting "without threatening the locals in the cities."
"We will not reduce cities to rubble while [Taliban troops] hide in there," he said.
Philip E. Coyle, who was the Pentagon's chief weapon tester during the Clinton administration, said that, while U.S. forces are well trained for urban fighting, they are likely to confront some unexpected difficulties, ranging from the design of buildings to the attitudes of residents.
"There may be surprises in these buildings that you can't anticipate," he said. "The other unknown is what kind of cooperation you will get from the citizenry: Will they let them do their mission or interfere?"
Ramadan Decision Not Made, Powell Says
Powell, in his comments, acknowledged that the onset of Ramadan will make military operations more difficult. But the final assessment of whether to maintain the attacks on Taliban forces and continue the pursuit of Bin Laden through Ramadan and the long winter will be made based on the status of the campaign at the time, he said.
"It is a cause that we must prevail in," Powell said. "We must be persistent. We must be patient. This isn't a battle that is going to be won suddenly one day."
Powell also said the United States is pushing forward in its efforts to help various Afghan opposition forces form a government in exile in preparation for assuming power. With meetings taking place in Pakistan and elsewhere, he said, "a lot of things are starting to happen, and we hope we'll be able to cause all of this to jell in the very near future."
He made clear that no other nation--such as Pakistan or the United States--will be allowed to determine what kind of government is formed in Afghanistan. The next Afghan government "cannot be dictated into existence," Powell said. "It has to come into existence because of the will of the Afghan people."
At the same time, he added, all the regional players--including Pakistan, Iran, Russia, China, India and Afghanistan's Central Asian neighbors--will have to be consulted about a new broad-based coalition government.
The process also will have to be "internationally blessed" and will almost certainly involve the United Nations in some administrative capacity because participants would lack "any real experience in government," Powell said.
President Bush, speaking at a printing company in Glen Burnie, Md., said he gave the Taliban "plenty of time to respond to the demands of the United States."
"They didn't respond positively, and, therefore, they're paying a price," he said.
"Our military is conducting a campaign to bring the terrorists to justice, not to harm the Afghan people. While we are holding the Taliban government accountable, we're also feeding Afghan people," he said. "You need to be proud of the United States military. It's doing its job. It is slowly but surely encircling the terrorists so that we'll bring them to justice. We're patient. We're firm. We have got a strategy that is going to work. And make no mistake about it--justice will be done."
Congress, meanwhile, moved to lay the groundwork for the use of Azerbaijan, on the Caspian Sea, as a possible staging area for U.S. military forces in the anti-terrorism campaign.
The Senate approved, by voice vote, a measure to ease certain restrictions on U.S. funding for the Caucasian nation. But it didn't repeal those restrictions altogether, a compromise that Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said was meant to answer the concerns of the Armenian American community.
Armenia and Azerbaijan are foes in a long-running territorial conflict. ___Times staff writers Nick Anderson, James Gerstenzang and Robin Wright contributed to this report.