Anti-Taliban Fighters Settle In for Long Haul

As U.S. airstrikes in Afghanistan enter their second month, officials here say the situation on the ground is unlikely to change much in the days before the Muslim holy month of Ramadan and the onset of winter later this month.

That has many people in Afghanistan and neighboring countries saying the battle to force the Taliban from power – presumably a necessary prerequisite to the destruction of Usama bin Laden’s Al-Qaeda terror network – will take until at least the spring, and that everyone involved should prepare for the long haul.

"We must say we are ready for an attack on the Taliban, but it is more true that we need more time," one commander outside the city of Taleqon told Fox News. "We haven’t received the weapons we need yet, and not everything is in place. This will take some doing."

The commander’s comments are not unusual. Almost without exception, field officers say publicly they are ready and eager to move forward. But they and many of their junior officers frequently and privately concede otherwise, saying they should simply continue letting the U.S. do the job of bashing away at Taliban lines over the coming weeks and months.

Advocates of quicker action have been boosted by an increased pace of American bombing of Taliban targets in recent weeks. That’s particularly the case in Northern Afghanistan, where an ongoing series of heavy airstrikes resumed Wednesday morning.

B-52 bombers returned to frontline areas along the border with Tajikistan with a series of attacks that began early in the morning. Taliban forces replied with anti-aircraft fire, mortar rounds and tank fire before falling silent later in the afternoon.

There is much talk here that the Alliance wants to open a third front against the Taliban, and that the U.S. bombing in the region is meant to make that happen. Those reports are, so far, unconfirmed. Alliance officials have said they are visiting the area to check out the situation, and to make a better evaluation of the prospects for a new offensive there.

There’s no question Alliance forces have been fighting along the front lines east of Mazar-I-Sharif, where this week they announced the capture of two small towns. Fighting continued in those areas into Wednesday as Alliance forces sought to consolidate their control.

But there is still no full-scale military offensive on cities like Kabul, Mazar and Kunduz, and no sign that any such move is imminent.

"The situation has improved a lot since the beginning of the bombing, in terms of both their accuracy and their intensity. But we are still not at that stage where we can say we are moving on Kabul," Alliance Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah told Fox News in an interview.

"I do not rule it out as a possibility," Abdullah said of reports that the Alliance was ready to move forward more aggressively. "But I’m not in a position to say that we are going to make a move in the next few days."

Abdullah and other Alliance officials have repeatedly said they want more and better coordination with U.S. forces on the battlefield. That coordination would at the very least include more specific joint action in the selection of targeting of Taliban forces.

The U.S. has as yet been unwilling to more formally coordinate its activities with the Alliance. But there are signs that is changing with the introduction of more U.S. special forces, who are now widely believed to be deployed along frontline positions in much of Afghanistan.

The Alliance has also made it clear there will be no cease-fire during Ramadan, which begins on Nov. 17 and lasts for a month. Many here believed the Alliance would move boldly against the Taliban before the holiday in a bid to grab new territory before winter set in.

"There will be no break. The Taliban have repeatedly demonstrated they would not honor the terms of a cease-fire, and there is no indication that will change," Abdullah said.

Abdullah also conceded the supply of arms and material for his forces coming from other countries have not yet reached the front lines. The lack of new supplies has been a common complaint by many Alliance commanders.

"These things take some time. There have been some delays," he conceded. "It is true that many of the arms have not yet made it into the hands of our fighters."

Alliance soldiers along the front lines expressed varying degrees of enthusiasm for the prospect of a full assault on the Taliban. Some openly despise the Taliban and are eager for a fight, while just as many seem intimidated and in some cases even terrified by the prospect of a full-scale war.

Many of the lines between the Taliban and the Alliance have not moved in more than a year, allowing soldiers on both sides to establish a kind of comfortable routine to their duties. It’s not unusual for many Alliance troops to commute from their nearby homes to the front lines, or to simply walk off from their positions at times they know their Taliban counterparts will do the same.

In some areas, Taliban and Alliance soldiers communicate with each other via walkie-talkie, alternately cursing at, joking with or simply passing time together. But many of the same troops who chat with their enemies by day say they would be ready any time the order came to move forward.

"We know how to fight, and we know when to rest for the fight," said one solider, manning an overnight post outside Taleqon. "It is a matter of time. Maybe a long time, or not. We cannot say."