US, Taliban both claim success in offensives
By Randall Mikkelsen and Yannis Behrakis
Washington/Rabat - United States President George W Bush said that the Taliban was crumbling and fugitive militant Osama bin Laden was "on the run" as bombers pounded Taliban front lines and federal agents swooped on suspected terrorist financial networks across the US.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair, a key US ally, echoed Bush's vow to bring the war to victory, but also underscored the growing view of military analysts that a ground offensive involving Western troops could be needed to topple the Taliban and destroy the al-Qaeda network.
In Afghanistan, the ruling Taliban militia said the US campaign had failed to dent their strength even as bombing runs sent huge columns of smoke into the sky and opposition Northern Alliance forces said they had gained ground in their push to take the strategic provincial capital of Mazar-i-Sharif.
Tajikistan, Afghanistan's northern neighbour, said US forces were welcome to use three air bases there in the campaign against the Taliban. US officials meanwhile sent agents swooping in to close the offices of two financial networks with links to Bin Laden in four US states.
Bush named the networks as Al Taqwa and Al Barakaat, saying that the former, an association of offshore banks, had helped Bin Laden's al-Qaeda group and the latter was a group of money-wiring and communication companies owned by a Bin Laden friend and supporter.
Bush also met with Blair amid a US diplomatic blitz to maintain support for the US-led war. The two leaders discussed the campaign and urged the world to be patient as the war unfolded.
Meanwhile, in Afghanistan, the opposition Northern Alliance said US air strikes had helped it gain ground in its bid to march on the strategic northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif, which commands a key supply link to Kabul as well as a major airfield.
The Taliban dismissed the claim, saying there had been no fighting there, the Pakistan-based Afghan Islamic Press said. Instead, the Taliban said the US bombs had killed more civilians, boosting worries that the fragile US-led coalition might be undermined by reports of Afghan families blown to pieces by US bombs.
Waging a propaganda campaign of its own, the Pentagon said anti-Taliban Afghan forces on horseback attacked tanks as US air strikes hit vehicles.
Nevertheless, after a month of bombing, military experts predicted that a spring ground offensive with thousands of US and allied troops would be needed to oust the Taliban.
Meanwhile, criticism of the US campaign's toll on Afghan civilians has mounted. The Afghan Islamic Press estimated that the US bombing had killed a total of 633 civilians and wounded up to 1 000 in the first 29 days of the campaign. The Taliban have put the death toll at 1 500, a figure the US rejects as exaggerated.
After the raid plumes of smoke rose from the Shomali plain, which crosses the front line separating forces of the Taliban regime and opposition Northern Alliance.
Washington has concentrated its attacks on this area since Wednesday, with the Taliban there controlling one of the three access routes to Kabul.