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Afghan War Goes Underground

US ground forces set their sights on the cave networks of Tora Bora, as anti-Taliban fighters close in on Kandahar.


American base near Taliban-controlled Kandahar

The United States' objective to catch or kill Osama bin Laden gained new focus and urgency Friday. This is after Pentagon officials announced that the terror suspect is most likely hiding in an area called Tora Bora.

In the craggy hills of eastern Afghanistan, Tora Bora is where anti-Soviet mujahideen fighters, including Bin Laden, constructed underground bunker systems during that previous war.

The "caves" that US officials have referred to are complex, highly-defendable subterranean barracks and fortresses. Some are powered by hydroelectric connections to mountain rivers, and they reportedly contain room for hundreds, perhaps even thousands of fighters.

These bunkers are now likely to become this war's next battlefield.

But old battles still rage. The Taliban retains control of its stronghold, Kandahar, though under a rain of US bombs and within close range of threatening anti-Taliban fighters.

US bombing continued on Kandahar and its nearby airport, according to local reports Friday. The 3.000-man army of a former Mujahideen regional governor, Gul Agha, amassed in hills overlooking the airport.

Complicated endgame

The "endgame" as US officials began to call it Thursday may have begun, but it is far from over.

Ongoing talks for a post-Taliban regime continued in Bonn. But there were fresh signs on the ground in Afghanistan that the country's many tribes and ethnic groups will struggle to get along, no matter how amicable the talks are in Germany.

Agha's spokesman said the former Kandahar governor was furious at the Northern Alliance for starting a gradual march on Kandahar. He called the Alliance's forward progress a "bluff", Reuters reported, and added that Alliance forces are unwelcome "unless invited".

There was a hint of tribal conflict in Agha's statement. The Northern Alliance is composed largely of tribes foreign to Kandahar, where most people are Pashtun.

Leaders of the minority Hazara tribe in Kabul also issued fresh complaints about Northern Alliance rule in the capital, calling instead for United Nations peacekeeping troops.

But a UN mission, still only one option of many for a hypothetical post-Taliban regime, could be a long way off.

US officials told journalists that with the war still very much on, the ground was not prepared for peacekeepers.

Containing the war

European countries expressed further concern about containing the war. This follows George W. Bush's warning to Iraqi President Saddam Hussein to allow weapons inspectors into his country or to "find out" what the consequences would be.

German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder first cautioned Wednesday that a wider war "could blow up in our faces." Germany has already pledged 3.900 troops to the war effort, but it is not yet known where they will be deployed. Some are already massing in Turkey.

British and French leaders issued pleas similar to Schröder's on Thursday. This, as a diplomatic consensus between European powers began to take shape in support of limited US military action.

With a French aircraft carrier en route to the theatre of operations, British soldiers already fighting on the ground in Afghanistan and the promise of a large German force, the countries' pleas should be heard in Washington.

But the European powers may be too weak to moderate what remains clearly a US-led war effort.

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