By Matt Kelley
WASHINGTON – American soldiers are in Afghanistan advising anti-Taliban forces and helping guide bombs to their targets, improving the success of the U.S.-led air campaign, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld says.
Warplanes launched heavy bombing raids Wednesday on Taliban front line positions north of the Afghan capital. Witnesses said it was some of the heaviest bombing of the front line yet, with at least 11 bombs striking Wednesday morning.
Rumsfeld said Tuesday of U.S. special forces in Afghanistan: “Because they are there now, the effort has improved in its effectiveness.”
Target information supplied by opposition forces has not been exact enough, officials have said.
Rumsfeld said a “very modest” number of U.S. forces – less than 100 – are in northern Afghanistan, working with specific units of the loose anti-Taliban coalition known as the northern alliance. He said other U.S. forces had been “in and out” of southern Afghanistan to work with Taliban opponents there.
Rumsfeld did not say which U.S. troops are in Afghanistan or how long they have been there, but from his description of their missions it seemed likely they included Army Special Forces, commonly called Green Berets.
Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., said after meeting with President Bush on Wednesday that congressional leaders are satisfied with the military action so far.
“There may be a need for additional efforts on the ground and if that’s necessary I’m sure the president will brief Congress on the importance of doing it,” Daschle said. “We’re prepared to work with him.”
Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., who also attended the leadership meeting at the White House, said military leaders “are going about it the right way. We’ll continue to see developments. All options are on the table.”
Rear Adm. John Stufflebeem said the American ground forces had been in Afghanistan for days, not weeks, and were there because northern alliance officials asked for them. Stufflebeem, deputy operations director for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the U.S. forces took a long time to arrive in the north because the main mode of transportation there is horse or donkey.
“So getting in, making sure you are with the right group, which is important, is somewhat problematic,” Stufflebeem said. “And you don’t necessarily want to just show up and announce yourself too loudly.”
Army Gen. Tommy Franks, commander of U.S. forces involved in the war in Afghanistan, said Tuesday that opposition Afghan forces could help the United States in several ways.
They could contribute directly by aiding in the overthrow of the Taliban government and the fight against Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaida network, he said, or they might help open an overland route to deliver emergency food aid to starving Afghans. So far the Air Force has dropped about 1 million packets of food rations, but the pace of that effort has been criticized by international aid agencies as too slow.
Speaking to reporters in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, Franks said more than 7.5 million Afghans need food. About 1,000 soldiers of the U.S. Army’s 10th Mountain Division are deployed at an Uzbek air base at Khanabad, 90 miles from Afghanistan’s northern border.
The Bush administration has come under increasing criticism in recent days for not doing more to destroy the Taliban militia and assist the northern alliance. That alliance, with modest U.S. help, is hoping to win control of the crossroads city of Mazar-e-Sharif.
Rumsfeld said about 80 percent of Tuesday’s planned attacks were against Taliban forces in the field. That’s meant to help clear the way for advances by the northern alliance, which also is facing off against Taliban troops near Bagram, about 25 miles north of Kabul.
Rumsfeld said President Bush had not ruled out committing ground troops in numbers comparable to the 1991 Gulf War, when hundreds of thousands were deployed.
On the 24th day of the air campaign, British Defense Minister Geoffrey Hoon consulted with Rumsfeld at the Pentagon. Hoon told a joint news conference it would not be wise to halt or limit the aerial bombardment during Ramadan, the Islamic holy month.
“It wouldn’t make military sense to announce up front what our intentions were during that period,” Hoon said. “It certainly wouldn’t make military sense to afford the Taliban regime, which has been under very considerable pressure in recent times, the opportunity of regrouping, reorganizing during a predictable period of time.”
Rumsfeld expressed a similar view Monday, although President Bush has not announced his intentions.
On Tuesday, however, Rumsfeld seemed to soften his stance a bit, saying the United States was “interested in the views and opinions and sensitivities” regarding Ramadan and that “each country has their own circumstance and their own neighborhood they live in.”
In a review of recent military action in Afghanistan, Stufflebeem told reporters that on Monday about 70 combat planes hit 13 target areas in Afghanistan, including Taliban military command-and-control sites, airfields, Taliban field troops, and caves and tunnels used by the Taliban and the al-Qaida to hide and store weapons and equipment.
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