The Pentagon is planning a new offensive in the 2-year-old Afghanistan campaign to stop remnants of the Taliban regime and the al-Qaida terror network, officials said Wednesday.
A second suicide assault on foreign troops in Kabul in two days killed one British soldier and injured four, drawing new attention to a worsening security situation in a country where American and other Western troops have been stationed since the fall of the Taliban's leadership in early 2002.
Rebels' use of roadside explosives and car bombs in recent attacks has led to new comparisons with the insurgency in Iraq.
At the Pentagon, orders have been issued to prepare equipment and supplies for the coming offensive, although the operation will not necessarily require additional troops in the region, the Associated Press reported, quoting a defense official who spoke on condition of anonymity. About 11,000 U.S. troops now serve there. The upcoming operation, first reported by the Chicago Tribune, has been dubbed the "spring offensive."
The AP reported that another unnamed Pentagon official declined to discuss the possibility that troops would extend operations to the Pakistan side of the border, where al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden and top lieutenants have long been said to be hiding. But the official said that might have to be the next step.
Defense Department officials believe current operations in Afghanistan are not having the effect they want on the terrorist network and they are determined to do more, the official said.
Officials already have said they hope to finally capture bin Laden this year, a development that could benefit President Bush in the November election.
A senior defense official said Pentagon leaders determined a couple of months ago that it is important to catch bin Laden, more for the symbolism than for his military value.
"I can say that Osama bin Laden and (former Taliban leader) Mullah Omar represent a threat to the world, and they need to be destroyed, and we believe we will catch them in the next year," Lt. Col. Bryan Hilferty, a spokesman for military forces in the region, told CNN.
The top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Lt. Gen. David W. Barno, said last month that hundreds of al-Qaida fighters still appear to be active in Khost and neighboring provinces on the long Afghanistan-Pakistan border. The area has seen a wave of attacks this year by insurgents believed to be a mix of Taliban, al-Qaida and fighters loyal to renegade Afghan warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar.
More than 140 people have been killed and injured since the Jan. 4 ratification of a new Afghan constitution that took effect this week and that the Western-backed Afghan government hopes can unite the country after nearly 25 years of fighting.
The Chicago Tribune reported that officials are particularly determined to hit al-Qaida hard in coming months partly because of concerns over two recent assassination attempts against Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf, whose role as a major U.S. ally in the war on terror has angered Islamic extremists.