Afghan Problem 'a Lot Deeper Than Bin Laden'


June 22, 2006 — -- An unmanned U.S. Air Force Predator in Afghanistan flies over a fierce battle between coalition forces and Taliban extremists in the vicinity of Gereshk.

The aircraft releases a Hellfire missile, ending the engagement.

A B-1 bomber is called in to another part of Afghanistan to provide close air support to coalition forces taking small-arms fire from Taliban fighters in the vicinity of Tarin Kowt. The B-1 releases precision-guided munitions on the Taliban position.

Engagement ended.

These U.S.-led attacks are just part of a massive anti-Taliban operation in four southern Afghan provinces aimed at killing or capturing fighters blamed for an upsurge in violence.

Is there something else behind the operation, though? Could the increased strikes mean the United States is hot on the trail of al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden?

"This goes a hell of a lot deeper than bin Laden," ABC News analyst Tony Cordesman said. "The U.S. is constantly on bin Laden's trail. This activity probably has nothing to do with bin Laden."

One fact that is not in question is Afghan President Hamid Karzai's displeasure with the current operation.

"It is not acceptable for us that in all this fighting, Afghans are dying," Karzai said during a news conference today.

"In the last three to four weeks, 500 to 600 Afghans were killed. [Even] if they are Taliban, they are sons of this land," Karzai said.

Karzai, who has butted heads with the Bush administration in the past over coalition activities in Afghanistan, is urging the international community to reassess its approach on the war on terror.

"I strongly believe that we must engage strategically in disarming terrorism by stopping their sources of supply of money, training, equipment, and motivation," Karzai said.

A number of analysts agree that the solution in Afghanistan has to be more political than militaristic.

In recent months the Taliban has been able to re-emerge in Afghanistan as well as Pakistan. The governments of those countries have been unable to change the attitudes of their citizens who are sympathetic to the extremist organization.

"The Taliban has been able to recover from some of their losses in Pakistan and Afghanistan," Cordesman said. "They're also filling a power vacuum in Afghanistan and finding sanctuary in western Pakistan."

Maj. Gen. William Nash, a former Army general and an ABC News analyst, points to NATO's expanding role as a possible cause of the increase in Taliban activity. By August, NATO will increase its military presence in Afghanistan from 9,000 troops to 16,000. The United States plans to reduce its troop level, and keep service members in the more volatile eastern region of the country.

"The U.S. wants to make the NATO hand-over as smooth as possible," Nash said. "So they may be doing some of the dirty work ahead of time."

"But the enemy also has a vote, and they may be trying to make the NATO transition more difficult," he said.

As the Taliban has been able to find more areas to exploit, military options like the current operation may be the best options.

There are almost 20,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan. In December, the Pentagon said it had planned to drop the number to about 16,500.

If the Taliban continues to grow in number and influence, experts believe the United States may have to rethink any reductions.

"We've been able to economize our commitment in Afghanistan," Nash said. "I'm not sure we're going to be able to do that much longer."