US shifts aim from Kabul to Baghdad
America insists it can juggle two manhunts and two national overhauls, but Bryan Bender in Washington reports that the Afghanistan operation is at risk.
As the hunt for Saddam Hussein grows more urgent and the guerilla war in Iraq shows little sign of abating, the Bush Administration is continuing to shift highly specialised intelligence officers from the hunt for al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan to the Iraq crisis, according to intelligence officials involved.
The activity, involving both analysts in Washington and specially trained field operatives, followed the transfer of hundreds of elite commandos from Afghanistan to Iraq, Pentagon officials said. It reflected the priority of capturing Saddam quickly, ending the guerilla war, and locating possible weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.
It also gives further ammunition, however, to critics who have long claimed that fighting the Iraq war would divert resources and attention from the hunt for bin Laden and other al-Qaeda fugitives.
The moves come as opposition to the Kabul Government increases. Taliban guerillas killed three Afghan Government soldiers and kidnapped four others in a raid in the south-eastern province of Paktika, a day after killing six soldiers in the same area, according to police. Paktika police chief Dawlat Khan said yesterday the latest Government casualties had occurred when about 200 Taliban fighters attacked a remote district headquarters at Terwah on Sunday evening.
A European diplomat recently in Afghanistan said the change of focus was eroding US capability in Afghanistan. "The intelligence brainpower is focused on Iraq," he said.
The Bush Administration insists it can keep up the hunt for both bin Laden and Saddam while tackling the enormous challenges of bringing stability to Iraq and Afghanistan. Officials stress that the global war on terrorism requires doing both. US Senate Intelligence Committee chairman Pat Roberts said on CNN's Late Edition on Sunday that the "noose is tightening" around both men.
International diplomats and specialists, however, worry that the achievements of toppling the Taliban regime, denying al-Qaeda its main sanctuary, and setting Afghanistan on a path to representative government and economic independence are at risk of being eroded as Washington trains its sights on Iraq.
Last Saturday, 400 guerillas drove a convoy of trucks from Pakistan into south-eastern Afghanistan and attacked a police headquarters building, according to Associated Press. At least 22 police and rebels were killed in the ensuing gunbattle at Barmal, 200 kilometres south-east of the capital, Kabul. The rebels held the police building until dawn Sunday, when they destroyed it and withdrew.
Last week, Afghanistan suffered the deadliest day since the end of major combat operations in the former Taliban stronghold. A bus bombing and clashes between the newly created Afghan National Army and Taliban and al-Qaeda guerillas left 58 people dead and dozens wounded.
The US has kept 10,000 troops in Afghanistan. The troops have been operating along the Pakistan border, ferreting out Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters who have found refuge in the tribal areas of north-western Pakistan, where bin Laden is believed to be hiding.
On July 31, three skirmishes involved US forces near Kabul, including an attempted bombing. US Central Command, meanwhile, has sent provincial reconstruction teams to some of the hardest-hit areas - including Gardez, the former al-Qaeda nerve centre - to improve security and public services.
Defence officials said in interviews that these activities indicated the intensity of the Afghan operations had not lessened. Some said last week that US forces were still trying to kill or capture Taliban and al-Qaeda holdouts.
A senior official said Afghanistan remained a top priority and that the "facts back it up". On the eve of the Iraq war, he said, "we captured Khalid Sheik Mohammed", an al-Qaeda's operations chief detained in Pakistan. "Special forces are in the tribal areas as we speak, working with the Pakistanis."
Still, US officials acknowledge that the war in Iraq has siphoned key military and intelligence resources from the US efforts in Afghanistan - even as regrouping radical elements, fragile rural security and a dramatic rise in opium production threaten to destabilise the US-backed Government of President Hamid Karzai.
"Did the intelligence community reallocate intelligence assets to Iraq? Sure," said a senior US intelligence official. "We need to be flexible enough to surge. When you surge, you have to rededicate. You can move assets back and forth to the detriment of the other."
[Source: The Age (Australia), August 19, 2003]
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