WASHINGTON, Nov 14: Following the entry of Northern Alliance elements into Kabul, United States special forces are now operating in southern Afghanistan in an apparent effort to pursue and tighten the ring around the Taliban in that region.

Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said at a Pentagon briefing on Tuesday a number of special forces were already working with the Northern Alliance and similar forces were now functioning in the south as well.

The defence secretary refused to give a number for the troops in the south. He said the Taliban and the Al Qaeda had several choices.

“They can flee and reorganize in the south. They can flee and melt into the countryside. Or they can defect. If they reorganize in the south, we are going to get them. If they go to ground, we will ... root them out. And if they decide to flee, I doubt that they’ll find peace wherever they select. As you know, they have some neighbours and they could attempt to flee there, in Iran or Pakistan. They have some locations where they have previously been located, such as Somalia or Sudan. There are terrorist states that in the past have housed terrorists and terrorist networks, and they’re all listed on the list, countries like Iraq and Syria, Libya, Cuba, North Korea, and the like.”

Also at the briefing was Gen Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who said in some areas, Taliban forces had decided to ally themselves with the opposition rather than face destruction. He added: “As far as Al Qaeda is concerned, coalition and Northern Alliance efforts have degraded some of al Qaeda’s fighting units and destroyed areas where they might hide. That said, the Al Qaeda terrorist organization remains dangerous, and our overall campaign objective remains to destroy Al Qaeda and break the Taliban’s hold on Afghanistan. So while the efforts on the ground are encouraging, we will continue our fight against terrorism.”

Asked whether the Taliban carried out a strategic withdrawal from Kabul or were forced to retreat, Gen Myers said the coalition forces had succeeded in degrading the Taliban command and control to a point where it was not effective. Their withdrawal “is a combination of things. It’s defections and it’s withdrawal, and it’s just trying to blend into the landscape, I would think. And .... it appears to be more disorganized than organized. I think they are very frustrated that they were not able to reinforce the north as they thought they could.”

As the Taliban retreated, the general said, “we are looking for Taliban on the move, either east or west out of Mazar-i-Sharif, or south out of Kabul, or, for that matter, east out of Kabul. The trick is trying to differentiate between Taliban and other forces and other peoples that may be leaving those locations, and that’s very, very difficult.”

Secretary Rumsfeld said special troops in the south were currently functioning independently of the tribes “and they are doing things that are helpful to our side and unhelpful to the other side”.

Q: There’s a question here as to whether or not you have heightened concerns given what is clearly their situation at the moment. And if you do have those heightened concerns, what do you think the appropriate course of action is? And again, are you also warning these other countries not to provide shelter to them?

AL QAEDA CELLS: We think the appropriate course of action is to do exactly what the president said, and that is to recognize that you have trained terrorists all across this globe, and you have 50 or 60 Al Qaeda cells and you have other totally different terrorist networks, that they are increasingly likely to get their hands on weapons of mass destruction — chemical and biological weapons, that they pose a real threat to the United States, and that the way to deal with that is to go find them and kill them or bring them to justice.

Now, second, with respect to the other countries, the president has said from the outset that the task is to get the terrorists and to stop countries from harbouring terrorists. And it is not a threat, it is not a warning, it is a fact. The president in repeated speeches has said that the only way to deal with this problem is to find those terrorists and to drain the swamp. To the extent countries are financing or facilitating or tolerating terrorist networks, those countries have to be stopped from doing that. That is what he has said repeatedly.

TALIBAN LEADERS: Mr Rumsfeld told a press conference in New York on Wednesday, following a visit to ground zero, that it is gratifying to see the people of Afghanistan getting their country back but acknowledged that key Taliban leaders have yet to be found, Masood Haider adds from New York.

Defence secretary said that the US special forces are monitoring the key roads in southern Afghanistan as Taliban militia retreat.

“They (special forces) have been interdicting the main roads that connect the North to the South to see what’s going on and to stop people that they think ought to be stopped,” Rumsfeld said,

Further commenting about Taliban he observed that “some have been killed, others are hiding, and there are no particular reports of senior leadership having been located,”

Mr Rumsfeld toured the World Trade Centre ruins again to illustrate why the United States is fighting in Afghanistan.

On reports of the fall of Kandahar a Pentagon spokesman Dick McGraw dismissed such reports saying, “It is far from being a stable situation anywhere yet.”

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