U.S. considering setting up base inside Afghanistan

By Matt Kelley

Associated Press

WASHINGTON – Future U.S. commando raids or other ground fighting against Taliban and al-Qaida troops might be based from an airfield inside Afghanistan, defense officials said.

Meanwhile, in the air campaign, U.S. planes swept through the skies over the front lines north of the Afghan capital throughout the day today. A huge explosion at front lines about 25 miles north of Kabul sent a mushroom cloud at least 1,000 feet high. The origin was not clear, since there were no airplanes overhead.

And Gen. Tommy Franks, commander of U.S. operation in Afghanistan, met today with officials in Uzbekistan, where about 1,000 soldiers with the Army’s 10th Mountain Division have been deployed at an air base at 90 miles from the northern Afghan border.

On Monday, Pentagon officials said setting up a U.S. base at an Afghan airfield is one of several possibilities the Defense Department is considering.

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said when the bombing began Oct. 7 that air power alone would be insufficient in Afghanistan, and special operations forces would play a key role in the campaign to capture or kill Osama bin Laden.

Troops on the ground probably will be needed to deal with bin Laden and other leaders of his al-Qaida terror network, but past wars in Afghanistan – notably the former Soviet Union’s failure after 10 years of fighting – have shown the high cost of a conventional large-scale ground invasion.

Bombers were continuing today to try to hit al-Qaida and Taliban troop positions and troops on the move as well as target caves from which they they operate, said Pentagon spokeswoman Victoria Clarke. The Pentagon has been hitting caves with “bunker buster” bombs that penetrate concrete, and Rumsfeld has said they also are trying to smash entrances and exits to the caves.

Today’s plan was pretty much a continuation of Monday’s bombing – much the same kind of targets and same areas but with a few more flyovers. That is, bombers planned 95 sorties today compared to Monday’s 89, Clarke said.

Rumsfeld Monday was asked about a USA Today report that said U.S. forces may soon establish a forward base in Afghanistan that would support 200 to 300 commandos. The newspaper, quoting an unidentified defense official, said the base might be in northern Afghanistan.

“You’re asking if we’re considering doing something additional in various ways,” Rumsfeld said. “Needless to say, that’s our job – to consider much different things, and we do.” He said he had nothing to announce.

Rumsfeld said American airstrikes have killed some leaders of the ruling Taliban military and al-Qaida, but not the top ones.

“There’s no question but that the Taliban and al-Qaida people, military, have been killed,” Rumsfeld said at a Pentagon news conference. “To our knowledge, none of the very top six, eight, 10 people have been included in that.”

Asked about reports that the Taliban had arrested Americans in Afghanistan, Rumsfeld said, “There have been no American military captured. Whether someone else may have been … I don’t think so.”

Rumsfeld also cast doubt on whether the United States would heed some of its Muslim allies’ request to wrap up the Afghanistan campaign before the Muslims’ holy month of Ramadan.

“The Taliban and al-Qaida are unlikely to take a holiday,” Rumsfeld said.

British Defense Secretary Geoff Hoon has said a pause in air strikes was under consideration. And Islamabad’s daily newspaper The News said that in a meeting with Pakistan officials, Franks offered “some assurances” that bombing during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan could be stopped or limited to Taliban targets away from civilian areas.

Rumsfeld rejected suggestions that the military effort in Afghanistan, now in its fourth week, has bogged down.

“This will not happen overnight,” he said. “It is a marathon, not a sprint. It will be years, not weeks or months.”

Franks said the same thing in Uzbekistan today.

“We want to conduct this operation on our timeline, and I think we are on the timeline,” he said.

Copyright ©2001 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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