WASHINGTON, March 2 In mounting a major military offensive near Gardez, the Pentagon's aim is to wipe out the last major pocket of Al Qaeda resistance in Afghanistan. The attack is also a graphic reminder of a simple but seemingly forgotten fact: The war is hardly over.
For weeks, the debate in Washington has centered on whether the next stage of the Bush administration's campaign against terrorism should be toppling Saddam Hussein of Iraq or mounting a counterinsurgency against remnants of the Qaeda network in Asia and the Middle East.
But there is still much unfinished business in Afghanistan. So much, that the role of American ground forces has grown, not diminished.
The offensive south of Gardez is the largest American-led ground action of the Afghan war.
The 1,500 Afghan soldiers that the United States has mobilized for the battle are doing much of the fighting but are hardly alone. The offensive in Gardez involves American Special Operations forces and American airstrikes, which include the use of two new "thermobaric" bombs, whose chemical mixture produces a huge incinerating blast that can force the oxygen out of caves and suffocate the people inside.
Significantly, the offensive also involves several hundred soldiers from the Army's 101st Airborne Division, whose Apache helicopters have been sent to the fight, according to Pentagon officials.
That is a far greater commitment of American power than the battle at Tora Bora in December.
At Tora Bora, the United States relied largely on its Afghan proxies and Pakistani border troops to trap Al Qaeda fighters. The strategy there limited the risk of American casualties, but many Qaeda fighters got away.
The Pentagon, it seems, may have learned the lesson of what can happen when the United States relies too heavily on a proxy force, and it now appears determined to avoid the mistakes of Tora Bora.
This tougher American strategy is not without its costs. One American was killed in the Gardez offensive, representing the second combat death since the war began, and 16 were reported wounded. The offensive, Pentagon officials say, could last for days.
For many in Washington, the biggest surprise is that such a large and important battle could emerge with so little warning.
The flight of the Taliban from Kabul last year was so sudden and the collapse of their defenses in their Kandahar stronghold so dramatic that it created the impression that the war was all but won. The battles over Mazar-i-Sharif, Kunduz and Tora Bora appeared to have given way to sporadic and occasionally ill- planned raids against small groups of Al Qaeda fighters. The war that began with such a bang appeared to end with a whimper.
But that was something of an illusion. While it is true that life has been returning to normal in the main Afghan cities, it is also true that much of the vast country is a no man's land. That is certainly the case in the Paktia, Paktika and Khost provinces in eastern Afghanistan.
Those provinces were always a friendly arena for Al Qaeda and "non-Afghan Taliban," as the Pentagon refers to the groups of Arab, Pakistani and other foreign fighters that are still active in Afghanistan.
The mountainous terrain offers numerous hiding places, and the proximity to Pakistan provides a chance for Al Qaeda fighters to move in and out of the country. Muhammad Fahim, the Afghan defense minister, predicted during the battle of Tora Bora that many of the Qaeda forces would escape and cut through Pakistani territory to Paktia and Paktika provinces to the south, and that seems to have occurred.
"When the Pentagon kept saying the war in Afghanistan was not over, a lot of people thought that it just a case of being cautious," a Defense Department official said today. "But it was really a case of the Pentagon being accurate. There are pockets of bad guys all over the place, especially in Paktia and Paktika."
Planning for the Gardez offensive has been under way for weeks amid reports that Al Qaeda fighters have been regrouping in the region. The goal is not just to kill remnants of the Qaeda force but to capture some. Still, there is no hard intelligence that indicates that Osama bin Laden or Mullah Muhammad Omar, the Taliban leader, is in the area.
The overall commander of American and other Western forces in Afghanistan is Maj. Gen. Franklin L. Hagenbeck, commander of the Army's 10th Mountain Division, which has forces in Afghanistan. In addition to American force, other Western troops are said to be involved in the offensive.
The Afghan soldiers allied with the Americans is being led by three Afghan commanders: Gen. Zia, Gen. Kamal Khan Zadran and Gen. Zakim Khan, American officials say.
Estimates of the foe in the Gardez offensive differ. Afghan officials have asserted there are thousands of Al Qaeda fighters in the region, but one Pentagon official estimated that they numbered 500 to 600 fighters.
Nobody can say for sure when the Afghan war may end. Even if the current offensive is successful, there are likely to be areas of resistance. But the stakes for the new offensive are high.
"This is the last major pocket of Al Qaeda resistance," a Pentagon official said.
One of the most important battles of the war, it seems, did not begin until most Americans concluded that the war was essentially over.www.nytimes.com/2002/03/03/international/asia/03ASSE.htmlE-mail this article