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The Economist November 30, 2001

Not over yet

NOBODY can accuse the Pentagon of being inconsistent. From the moment the bombing of Afghanistan began, it laid out the following priorities. First, liquidate the al-Qaeda network of Islamist terror, particularly its master, Osama bin Laden. Second, smash the Taliban regime, which had been succouring that network. Last, and very much least (if, indeed, this can at all be described as a military objective), create a new order, more stable and humane, in Afghanistan.

From these strategic aims, certain tactics followed. From the outset of the bombing campaign on October 7th, it seemed clear that gouging the al-Qaeda fighters out of their hiding-places was a job that could be accomplished, in the end, only by soldiers on the ground. But such forces could not be deployed, the Pentagon decided, until aerial bombing had created a safer environment for American troops.

Early on Monday, November 26th, it seemed that those conditions had at last been met. Hundreds of marines had landed by helicopter at an airfield within striking distance of Kandahar, the Taliban's main stronghold and the only large city that remains under their control. Pentagon officials said the numbers on the ground have now reached about 1,000. The figure could rise quite rapidly to 10,000, judging by the number of marines, sailors and special forces that are being kept at the ready.

General Tommy Franks, who is in charge of the operation, said the American-led war effort would now be concentrating on two places in particular. One is Kandahar itself, where American bombers have been raining destruction on a compound used by al-Qaeda and the Taliban. According to some observers, the air raids on November 30th were among the fiercest of the war so far, helping anti-Taliban forces inch closer to the city. The second area of American focus is that between Kabul and the Khyber Pass, including a place called Tora Bora near Jalalabad, where it was suspected that the leaders of al-Qaeda, perhaps including Mr bin Laden himself, may be hiding out.

But it was a daunting task, as the general admitted, to block the paths-between 150 and 170 of them-which al-Qaeda fighters may use to flee from Afghanistan to Pakistan. The Pakistanis were struggling manfully to block these routes to fighters, General Franks said, but only "within (their) capability".

Donald Rumsfeld, the defence secretary, has made clear that the Pentagon does not view occupying Afghanistan-even tiny pieces of it-as an end in itself. Ground forces will remain in place for as long, but only as long, as it takes to finish off al-Qaeda and its Taliban hosts. Nobody is saying how long that will be. John Pike of Global Security, a Washington defence consultancy, reckons that the Pentagon is preparing to fight on until the spring.

Some of the marines' immediate targets became clear within hours of their arrival. They attacked a Taliban armoured column and claimed to have destroyed several tanks. But despite their eagerness to strike such "targets of opportunity"-targets which were sometimes impossible to identify from the air-the marines' task did not include a frontal attack on Kandahar. The task of "softening up" that ancient walled city was still, at least for the time being, in the hands of America's airforce. "Anybody who is there is going to wish they weren't," was Mr Rumsfeld's grim warning to the al-Qaeda and Taliban leaders who were believed to be holed up in the town centre.

The marines' arrival in southern Afghanistan coincided with an all-but-final victory for the anti-Taliban forces of the Northern Alliance in the north, which came with the capture of the town of Kunduz, after a two-week siege.

An uprising by Taliban fighters held captive at Qalai Janghi, a mud-walled fortress near Mazar-i-Sharif, was put down in three days of fighting. Several hundred rebel prisoners were killed after they had seized guns and rocket-propelled grenades from their guards. The fighting involved heavy artillery, American air strikes, and American and British special forces on the ground.

As western journalists-and television cameras-survey the grisly aftermath of some of the latest battles, arguments are growing louder over whether the laws of war were broken. At Qalai Janghi, correspondents found that some of the hundreds of charred corpses had their arms tied together above the elbow. Although it was clear that the rebelling prisoners had been heavily armed, the scenes of devastation are bound to embarrass the American-led coalition.

Humans Rights Watch, a New York-based lobby group, has been arguing that captured Taliban prisoners must be treated humanely and with due process; they must neither be killed in cold blood, nor amnestied in cases where there is enough evidence to put them on trial for war crimes. And where they wish to surrender, they should be allowed to, the campaigners say-pointing out that "giving no quarter" is explicitly forbidden by the Geneva Conventions. London-based Amnesty International, meanwhile, wants an enquiry into whether the slaughter of prisoners at Qalai Janghi was a violation of the Geneva Conventions' articles on the safety of prisoners of war. Mary Robinson, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, has added her voice to calls for an enquiry.

The Pentagon is also looking into an incident in which anti-Taliban fighters apparently killed as many as 160 unarmed prisoners after a battle for the town of Takteh Pol, between Kandahar and the border with Pakistan. But the Taliban's local foes seem unfazed by these discussions, perhaps because they remember how the Taliban behaved when it could.

Whatever really happened at Mazar-i-Sharif and Takteh Pol this week, one thing is clear: the war in Afghanistan is by no means over. For one thing, the Taliban appear to be digging in their heels in Kandahar. Their spiritual leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar, was apparently well enough to send a radio message to his hard-pressed forces: "Do not vacate any areas." A bloody showdown is also looming at the Taliban-controlled border town of Spin Boldak. There, surrender talks failed and attempts to wrest the place out of Taliban hands were complicated by the mistrust between four rival commanders on the attacking side, all of whom want a share of the lucrative smuggling route which runs through the town.

Another reason for American caution is that the usefulness as a fighting force of the Northern Alliance's mixture of Tajiks, Uzbeks and others, though greater than many sceptics had believed two months ago, may now be drawing to an end. In the country's southern half, dominated by the Pushtun ethnic group to which the Taliban leaders belong, it is still much less clear who America's natural allies are.