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As US cites Afghan successes, fears rise of resurgent Taliban

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan -- After a fierce, 10-day fight in the rugged mountains of southern Afghanistan, US commanders say they have Taliban fighters on the run. Nearly 100 Taliban holdouts were reported killed and dozens captured, and hundreds were said to have fled the gorges and caves of Zabul province.

"We believe we have been very successful, we believe we have the enemy on the run," Colonel Rodney Davis told reporters Friday at Bagram air base, headquarters of the US-led coalition.

But the recent clashes could signal the onset of a renewed struggle, security officials and analysts said. Nearly two years after the coalition ousted the Taliban, remnants of the hard-line Islamist regime have again made southern Afghanistan a battle zone, alarming President Hamid Karzai's government and coalition officials, who worry the Taliban are not only regrouping but may be attracting new adherents as reconstruction moves at a snail's pace.

US defense officials in Washington said attacks by Taliban guerrillas have also forced a reevaluation among top American commanders, who mounted a counteroffensive in Zabul in a bid to stamp them out.

The fighting in Dai Chupan district lasted almost two weeks and marked one of the longest clashes with such a large concentration of insurgents since the Taliban were toppled. In a counteroffensive that the US coalition dubbed Operation Mountain Viper, Afghan troops, backed by US airpower and special forces, routed the insurgents but were surprised by their resilience.

The coalition "is dropping everything on them, and they are standing their ground or dying," prompting coalition speculation that they might be trying to protect a high-ranking figure, a Western security official based in Afghanistan said during last week's fighting. The Taliban's leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar, and Al Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden are thought to be hiding in the mountainous belt that straddles the Afghan-Pakistani border.

The US military estimates that at least 84 insurgents have been killed since the official start of the operation. At least 14 were believed killed in the preceding five days. One US special forces soldier died after an accidental fall during the operation. The operation followed a surge in suspected Taliban attacks the past two months on civilians and the government in the south. More than 50 people died in separate assaults Aug. 15, including a bombing in Helmand province that killed 15. Two days later, up to 400 gunmen seized the police station in the town of Barmal, in the southeastern province of Paktika, killing at least 22 people.

In response, the United States, which has about 8,000 troops in Afghanistan, has been forced to rethink its strategy, defense officials in Washington said.

The US approach since the end of major combat in Afghanistan had been to carry out patrols along the border. Now, the US military has reverted to the approach it used during the war: gathering intelligence on Taliban and Qaeda strongholds and launching attacks to capture or kill the fighters.

Military officials and security specialists are concerned that the upswing in violence signals a regeneration of the radical movement in the ethnic Pashtun areas of Afghanistan and northwestern Pakistan, where the Taliban movement was born before it took over Afghanistan and harbored bin Laden's terrorist network. The Taliban fighters are making headway in the battle for the hearts and minds of the ethnic Pashtuns in the south, who have traditionally dominated politics and feel sidelined by the current government, as resentment grows at the slow pace of reconstruction, the security officials say.

Other elements working against Karzai's government are believed to include Al Qaeda operatives and fighters sympathetic to Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a former prime minister and renegade warlord. Fighters of Arab, Pakistani, and Indonesian origin are believed to be swelling the ranks of the new Taliban forces, security officials in Afghanistan say, citing bodies found after clashes.

"There are new people now joining the remnants of both the Taliban and Al Qaeda," said Thomas E. Gouttierre, dean of international studies at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, who lived in Afghanistan for 10 years and negotiated on behalf of the United Nations with top Taliban leaders in the 1990s.

Michael O'Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, said the main core of Taliban fighters and their Al Qaeda allies "can regenerate through new recuits or convince former Taliban fighters to join the struggle even though the assumption was they would go back to their villages and melt away."

The biggest contributor to the growing instability, other observers said, is what they view as the limited progress on reconstruction. The coalition "has failed to deliver and therefore there's no dearth of recruitment" among militants, said General Hamid Gul, former head of the Pakistani intelligence services, which organized the supply of US-funded arms to the holy warriors during the Afghan war to oust the Soviets.

Without more progress, threats to stability will continue to grow, the security officials and specialists contend. Among the risks: increased funding for religious schools in Pakistani border areas from such groups as the fundamentalist Islam Wahhabi sect, based in Saudi Arabia; the growing strength of drug lords who have an interest in continued instability; and the possible meddling of Pakistani military dissidents and intelligence officers such as those credited with helping the Taliban come to power.

Without renewed emphasis on reconstruction -- what Gouttierre says requires a Marshall Plan-type undertaking -- the Taliban will only grow bolder, the analysts say.

"The Americans have a very clear choice: either to invest more or they should get out," Gul said.

Burnett reported from Islamabad and Bender from Washington.

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