WASHINGTON - As U.S. forces carried out a third day of strikes in Afghanistan, Pentagon officials said yesterday that the attacks had destroyed enough air defense sites to allow U.S. planes to carry out missions 24 hours a day.
"Essentially, we have air supremacy over Afghanistan now," said Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said the success of the airstrikes paves the way for a "sustained campaign to root out the terrorists" and deliver more humanitarian aid to Afghan civilians.
Rumsfeld refused to discuss the next phase of the military campaign, which some officials have said will include ground operations, most likely commando units. For now, officials say, the U.S.-led air attacks are likely to continue for at least the rest of the week.
Some speculation centered on sending in low-flying helicopter gunships.
Today, for the second day in a row, a daylight raid was conducted, with three bombs reported striking near the airport at Kandahar, the seat of the Taliban movement.
Earlier, a heavy barrage of anti-aircraft fire flared in Kabul, the capital. Power has gone out each night as anti-aircraft guns have begun to roar, and Taliban radio is off the air after its transmission tower was wrecked.
A defiant Taliban said today that they had lifted all restrictions on bin Laden and that he was free to wage a holy war against the United States, their spokesman told the BBC's Pushto service.
"With the start of the American attacks, these restrictions are no longer in place," Abdul Hai Mutmaen said.
Four security workers for a United Nations-affiliated mine-clearing operation were killed during an attack in Kabul, the Afghan capital. Rumsfeld said it was not clear whether U.S. bombs or Taliban anti-aircraft fire caused the deaths.
The workers, all Afghans, were the first confirmed civilian casualties since the aerial assaults began Sunday.
President Bush, in a letter to leaders of Congress, said the air attacks against terrorists of bin Laden's al-Qaida network and their Taliban supporters will continue indefinitely.
"It is not possible to know at this time either the duration of combat operations or the scope and duration of the deployment," Bush wrote.
The Bush administration is seeking to keep much of the war-planning information out of the public eye as it considers its next moves and shores up its international alliance.
Secretary of State Colin L. Powell will seek to strengthen that coalition against terrorism when he travels to India and Pakistan at the end of the week, in part to discuss Afghanistan's future.
Powell's visit will be a show of support for Pakistan's beleaguered president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, whose backing for the United States has sparked protests from many Muslims in Pakistan who favor the Taliban.
Bush met at the White House with Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder of Germany, one of several nations that the president has said are willing to participate in military operations against targets in Afghanistan.
With Schroeder at his side, Bush said he had decided to restrict the number of lawmakers who receive top-security briefings on the anti-terror campaign because at least one had leaked classified information.
Speaking at the Pentagon, Rumsfeld said 13 targets in Afghanistan were struck Monday, in addition to 31 on Sunday, when the air attacks began. About 85 percent of the targets Sunday were destroyed, officials said.
Rumsfeld declined to identify the targets of yesterday's assaults but said meager Taliban defenses were in shambles. Bush called the mission a success so far. The home of Taliban supreme leader Mullah Mohammed Omar, about nine miles from Kandahar, was struck for the third time, Taliban sources said.
In daylight and nighttime raids, targets have included airfields, air defense and communications sites, and the camps of bin Laden's terrorist networks. Strikes also were aimed at the Taliban militia in the north.
"They're in relatively small sizes - hundreds, not thousands," Rumsfeld said of the Taliban forces.
Myers unveiled several before-and-after slides of selected targets hit, including a terrorist training camp, a surface-to-air missile site and an airfield.
Rumsfeld and Myers declined to say whether the United States would provide air cover for the anti-Taliban forces of the Northern Alliance, which has said it is planning a counterattack.
Anti-Taliban resistance leaders in Afghanistan said the airstrikes were ineffective, largely sparing Taliban troops.
"We don't understand what the Americans want. If they really want to destroy the Taliban and Osama bin Laden and other terrorists, they have to bomb according to the coordinates that we give them," said Gen. Bobojan, a senior commander of the Northern Alliance, at the strategic Bagram airbase north of Kabul, the Afghan capital.
Bobojan and other opposition commanders expressed frustration with the pace of the U.S. assault.