War Is Far From Over Despite Fall of Kabul

LONDON -- Osama bin Laden may be running out of hiding places, but he and his Taliban supporters could take to the hills and fight a lengthy "hit-and-run" guerrilla war, defense analysts warned Wednesday.

With the Northern Alliance advancing at bewildering speed, diplomats are galloping to keep up with the generals in a dangerously fluid situation that has presented the U.S.-led coalition with a whole new set of military challenges.

"The war is not over by any means despite all the euphoria about the fall of Kabul," warned Clifford Beal, editor of Jane's Defence Weekly.

Christopher Langton at the International Institute for Strategic Studies agreed, asking, "Rout or tactical retreat by Kabul forces?" after the Taliban's swift exit from the Afghan capital.

In the 1980s, the Soviet Union was humbled in a protracted guerrilla war fought out in a country with a grim reputation as a graveyard for invaders. The chances of U.S. troops engaging in pitched battle with the Taliban look equally slim.

Beal argued that would put the coalition under intolerable stress. "I would be surprised if you see a lot of Western troops fighting alongside the Northern Alliance. The United Nations is the key to stabilizing the country."

Langton, writing in the Times of London, said: "The appearance is one of the Taliban making plans not to stand and fight, but rather preferring to live to fight another day somewhere else and in territory more inaccessible and amenable to guerrilla-style operations."

The international community has to answer some blunt questions -- and quickly. Who is ready to join a peacekeeping force? Who would join political talks on Afghanistan's future?

But what are the chances of catching bin Laden, prime suspect behind the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States?

The United States has put a $5 million price on the head of the Saudi-born militant, and betrayal may be the best bet.

British Defense Secretary Geoff Hoon was the first to admit that the battle was far from won.

Hoon said it may not be easy to prize bin Laden from his hiding place in Afghanistan, but he believes someone within the Taliban will hand him over.

"I recognize that there are mountainous areas of Afghanistan where he may seek to hide out, but I am confident we are denying him space to hide and I am confident ultimately that someone will give him away," he said.

Beal warned that bin Laden could already have flown his Afghan hideout and taken refuge in Pakistan among sympathizers. "He has shown the ability to move very easily among countries and exploit local bases of support," he said.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Washington's staunchest ally in the international war on terrorism, was equally keen to quell any premature jubilation.

Talking to reporters on Wednesday after meeting Portuguese Prime Minister Antonio Guterres, he said: "Obviously the Taliban forces are in a state of collapse. We welcome that.

"But it is important to realize our objectives are not yet fulfilled. We still have to ensure Afghanistan cannot be used to export terrorism around the world, the al-Qaida network is shut down and bin Laden and his associates are brought to justice."