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US eyes Afghan spring offensive
( 2004-01-29 09:11) (Agencies)

US is planning a new offensive in the 2-year-old Afghanistan campaign to stop remnants of the Taliban regime and the al-Qaeda terror network, officials said Wednesday, even as a second suicide assault on foreign troops in Kabul in as many days killed one British soldier and injured four.

The attack on international peacekeepers in Kabul, the Afghan capital, drew new attention to a worsening security situation in a country where American and other Western troops have been stationed since the fall of the Taliban's leadership in early 2002.

Rebels' use of roadside explosives and car bombs in the recent wave of attacks has led to new comparisons with the insurgency in Iraq.

At the Pentagon, orders have been issued to prepare equipment and supplies for the coming offensive, although the operation will not necessarily require additional troops in the region, a defense official said on condition of anonymity. The upcoming operation, first reported by the Chicago Tribune, has been dubbed the "spring offensive."

Another Pentagon official declined to discuss the possibility that troops would extend operations to the Pakistan side of the border, where al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and top lieutenants have long been said to be hiding. But the official said that might have to be the next step.

Defense Department officials believe current operations in Afghanistan are not having the effect they want on the terrorist network and they are determined to do more, the official said.

Officials already have said they hope to finally capture bin Laden this year, a development that could benefit U.S. President Bush in the November election. About 11,000 U.S. troops are in the region.

One senior defense official said Pentagon leaders determined a couple of months ago that it is important to catch bin Laden, more for the symbolism than for his military value.

"I can say that Osama bin Laden and (and former Taliban leader) Mullah Omar represent a threat to the world, and they need to be destroyed, and we believe we will catch them in the next year," Lt. Col. Bryan Hilferty, a spokesman for military forces in the region, told CNN.

The top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Lt. Gen. David W. Barno, said last month that hundreds of al-Qaeda fighters still appear to be active in Khost and neighboring provinces on the long Afghanistan-Pakistan border. The area has seen a wave of attacks this year by insurgents believed to be a mix of Taliban, al-Qaeda and fighters loyal to renegade Afghan warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar.

More than 140 people have been killed and injured since the Jan. 4 ratification of a new Afghan constitution that took effect this week, and which the Western-backed Afghan government hopes can unite the country after nearly a quarter-century of fighting.

Until now, the suicide attacks on foreign soldiers that have proven so deadly in Iraq have been relatively rare in Afghanistan. But last fall, the commander of the international force, German Lt. Gen. Goetz Gliemeroth, warned that a "new species" of terrorist had infiltrated the capital.

The suicide attack on Wednesday that killed a British soldier and injured four others came during a memorial ceremony for a Canadian soldier killed the day before. The Taliban claimed responsibility for both bombings.

The British soldier died after a yellow and white taxi carrying 200 pounds of explosives blew up near his open-topped Land Rover at about 11 a.m. in the eastern outskirts of Kabul, said Nayamatullah Jalili, intelligence chief at the Interior Ministry. He said an Afghan was also killed apparently the assailant.

"The preliminary investigation suggests it was a suicide attack," Jalili said.

Four other British soldiers were wounded, two of them seriously, Col. Mike Griffiths, commander of the 300-strong British contingent in the NATO -led peacekeeping force, said at a news conference in its fortified headquarters. He declined to identify any of the British soldiers or their unit.

An Afghan translator also was wounded.

The Tribune said officials are particularly determined to hit al-Qaeda hard in coming months partly because of concerns over two recent assassination attempts against Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf, whose role as a major U.S. ally in the war on terror has angered Islamic extremists.

 
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