Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

US, Allies in a Riskier Kind of War ; in a Shift in Strategy, US Troops Escalate a Brutal Ground Battle against Al Qaeda and Taliban Forces in the Mountains

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

US, Allies in a Riskier Kind of War ; in a Shift in Strategy, US Troops Escalate a Brutal Ground Battle against Al Qaeda and Taliban Forces in the Mountains

Article excerpt

For months, US-led forces in Afghanistan have fought what many experts dubbed a new "Afghan model" kind of war, combining air power, proxy forces, and US special operations units.

Now, suddenly, the US and its allies are in the fray of an old- fashioned ground war, as they try to root out Al Qaeda and Taliban remnants dug into caves in snow-covered mountains south of Gardez.

The commitment of sizable numbers of US and Western troops suggests that commanders have learned a lesson from the December siege of Tora Bora, when Afghan proxy forces may have let hundreds of enemy fighters escape.

But as mounting casualties show, greater risk is an inherent part of this new head-on confrontation. US fighters are directly taking on the harsh elements that have long thwarted foreign armies in Afghanistan: frigid, high-altitude passes, hundreds of fortified caves and tunnels, and an entrenched enemy. "These guys aren't running," says one Pentagon official. "They wanted to fight us one- on-one on the ground in a Soviet-style scenario - and they are getting what they wanted."

The fight could end up being the biggest and most deadly in the Afghanistan war.

At least nine US servicemen have been killed in the battle. Six troops died when one of the MH-47 Chinook helicopters crashed and troops aboard engaged in close ground combat with enemy forces. Another fatality occurred earlier, when a MH-47 was hit, but managed to land safely. Dozens of other US troops have been wounded since the campaign began Friday.

The battle between some 1,500 coalition troops and an estimated 500 to 1,000 Al Qaeda and Taliban fighters is likely to be drawn out. "It's not going to be over today," one official says.

Less reliance on proxies

The use of more US and Western ground troops signals a shift in military strategy from earlier stages of the conflict. After the December siege at Tora Bora led to the escape of hundreds of Al Qaeda and Taliban fighters, possibly including Saudi militant Osama bin Laden, US commanders became less confident of relying greatly on Afghan proxy forces on the ground.

"We may be correcting some things by sealing the borders and relying more on our own guys," says Mackubin Owens, a Marine veteran and strategist at the Naval War College in Newport, R.I.

"You still need troops on the ground other than Special Operations Forces" combined with air power, he says. "It's like the Zen question: Which blade of the scissors does the cutting? They both do.... You need ground forces to get the enemy to mass so you can destroy them with air power."

The deployment of a large American ground contingent is also a vivid demonstration of the US determination to eliminate Al Qaeda and Taliban holdouts from Afghanistan, in an effort to help stabilize the war-torn nation under the fledgling interim administration of Afghan leader Hamid Karzai. …

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