Pakistan pullout might make Afghan campaign tougher

Saturday, June 1, 2002

BAGRAM, Afghanistan -- A new American general took control of the U.S.-led campaign in Afghanistan on Friday, acknowledging in an interview with The Associated Press that the hunt for elusive al-Qaida and Taliban fighters has gotten tougher.

Lt. Gen. Dan K. McNeill said he may have to adapt his tactics after Pakistan's withdrawal of troops from its side of the Afghan border. Pakistan confirmed Friday it has pulled back some of its soldiers as the threat of war with India appeared to be escalating.

It wasn't known how many soldiers were pulled back from the Afghan-Pakistan border, where about 6,000 Pakistani soldiers have been helping U.S.-led forces track down al-Qaida and Taliban fighters taking refuge there. However, the absence of Pakistani troops could effectively give al-Qaida and the Taliban a refuge in Pakistan's western tribal region.

Many, if not all, of the top al-Qaida and Taliban leaders are thought to be in Pakistan. Those left in Afghanistan are avoiding battles, melting into the population, hiding in the rugged mountains and moving back and forth across the porous border.

McNeill has avoided commenting on the possibility of the United States expanding its search in western Pakistan, where some American special forces have worked in past months. But he said Pakistani withdrawals could lead to changes in his operations in Afghanistan. He did not say what changes.

The arrival of McNeill, head of the 18th Airborne Corps, elevates the command at Bagram -- a former Soviet air base in a valley north of Kabul -- making it the headquarters for U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan. McNeill will run all aspects of the campaign and report directly to Florida-based U.S. Central Command.

Not an escalation

McNeill's predecessor, Maj. Gen. Franklin L. Hagenbeck, worked through the U.S. base in Kuwait. The change "does not mean or represent an escalation," McNeill told reporters after he assumed control of the U.S.-led campaign. "It simply represents a maturing of the theater and an action to streamline the chain of command."

British troops have made four major sweeps for al-Qaida and the Taliban in the southeast region of Khost near the Pakistani border since March -- without finding any fighters. The most recent British search, codenamed Operation Buzzard, was launched this week.

U.S. special forces have been searching in smaller groups in several border provinces.

They have uncovered weapons caches and "items of intelligence value," McNeill told AP. Asked if they have found al-Qaida or Taliban fighters, he said, "They probably have," but he could not give any numbers.

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