by DEBKAfile, 8 March 2002

"DEBKAfile’s military experts report the intense fighting over the past week in the mountains of Afghanistan south of Gardez, between the US 101st Airborne and 10th Mountain divisions and al-Qaeda and Taliban forces, is beginning to impinge on US preparations for its coming assault on Iraq.

A poor showing by the hundreds of Afghans fighting alongside US troops has forced US military planners to pour into the battle zone American reinforcements that were earmarked for other combat arenas. DEBKAfile’s military sources say general Tommy Franks, the US Central Command chief, transferred to the Gardez battlefield US forces standing by on Oman’s Masirah Island base for the US offensive against Iraq. Several thousand more may have to follow, if fighting flares up in additional Taliban-al Qaeda pockets around Afghanistan.

US forces in Gardez commanded by major general Frank Hagenbeck faced a hard fact this week: the joint US-Afghan force was unable to stem the influx of Taliban and al-Qaeda reinforcements from Pakistan, only several dozen kilometers away, and from among additional enemy concentrations in Afghanistan – particularly since Thursday, when the mountain region was struck with blinding snow storms.

DEBKAfile’s military sources say that, while the Americans were pouring additional soldiers, 17 assault helicopters and tank-busting A-10 aircraft into the area, the other side was moving in reinforcements too, equipped with large quantities of anti-tank missiles and various shoulder-held surface-to-air missiles, including US-made Stingers.
US spy satellites and drones spotted groups of Taliban and al-Qaeda converging on the battle zone from as far away as the Hindu Kush mountains, north of the city of Jalalabad, and the Zabul province south of Gardez.
US commanders had hoped to win the battle before the enemy reinforcements arrived. But military experts watching the fighting judged this hope illusory. They estimate the engagement will continue past the weekend and into its second week, reaching a climax at mid-week.

DEBKAfile’s military experts report that the Taliban and al Qaeda commanders in Pakistan appear to be bucked up enough by their success in standing up to the American-led assault to revise their planning. Previously, Taliban and al-Qaeda terrorist attacks had been plotted for US forces, UN peacekeepers and other targets linked to the interim government of Hamid Karzai, in major Afghan cities, such as Kabul, Kandahar and Mazer e-Sharif. The bulk of their forces were to have been reserved in enclaves for a summer counter-offensive to be launched around the country in mid-June or early July.

But now, Taliban and al-Qaeda chiefs have decided to delay no longer. Instead of waiting for the United States to move against their enclaves, they are going on the offensive to try and “draw” US forces to the strongholds.
Taliban and al-Qaeda commanders see the balance of war tilting to their side, noting that Afghan fighters in the Gardez front do not share US troops’ enthusiasm and dedication to their missions. Back in December, during the assault on the Tora Bora cave complex, Afghans were clearly reluctant – even for good pay – to carry on fighting the Taliban and al-Qaeda. The same manifestation recurred in this week’s battles.

The escalating Israeli-Palestinian conflict too further complicates America’s military situation. Should the violence spill over and the Lebanese Hizballh – buttressed by al Qaeda militants - join the fray to ease Israel’s military pressure on the Palestinians, Washington’s plans and timetable for its Iraq campaign would be set back once again."