At sea, set for ground combat

U.S. special forces on carrier ready to go to Afghanistan

Strikes on targets continue

War On Terrorism

The World

October 18, 2001|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - U.S. special operations troops and helicopters are positioned on an aircraft carrier in the Arabian Sea, poised to conduct ground combat in Afghanistan if called, Pentagon officials said yesterday.

Officials declined to say how many special operations troops - presumably Army Green Berets - or what types of helicopters are aboard the carrier USS Kitty Hawk, noting that such missions are highly secretive.

But military officials have said for weeks that ground operations would eventually be needed to root out the leaders of Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida terrorist network. And they have said that the U.S.-led aerial assault, now in its 11th day, is laying the foundation for follow-up operations.

One Pentagon official suggested that the intensified U.S. airstrikes in recent days, especially around Taliban troop positions and other targets in the southern city of Kandahar, are intended to soften up those forces in advance of a commando offensive.

In addition, the use this week of the heavily armed but slow-flying AC-130 gunship could signal U.S. confidence that the threat posed by Taliban forces on the ground has been diminished. As a result, U.S. aircraft can roam more freely above the landscape.

Yesterday, U.S. jets pounded targets in Kandahar and the capital city of Kabul, including a fuel depot near the airport in Kabul.

At the same time, Taliban fighters and opposition forces were locked in a seesaw battle for the strategic northern city of Mazar-e Sharif.

Control of Mazar-e Sharif would enable the opposition to consolidate its supply lines along the borders with Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, from which they obtain weapons.

Rally against terrorists

As he left yesterday for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in Shanghai, China, President Bush declared that the need for an international coalition against terrorism was of grave importance.

"The future of the world is at stake," Bush said at a stopover at Travis Air Force Base in California on the way to his first trip abroad since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Though the Asia forum was supposed to focus on global finance and trade, the president made clear that his focus would remain the mission he has assigned himself since the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

"The main thing that will be on my mind is to continue to rally the world against terrorists," he said.

"To remind [people] that evil knows no borders and to remind them that we must take a stand. That those of us who have been given the responsibility of high office must not shirk from our duty. That now is the time to claim freedom for future generations."

In an earlier appearance in Sacramento, Bush made clear that the U.S. military action in Afghanistan is intended to clear a path for opposition forces in that country to topple the Taliban regime.

"We're paving the way for friendly troops to defeat the Taliban and root out the al-Qaida parasites that the Taliban hosts and protects," the president said.

Threat weakened

At a Pentagon news conference, Rear Adm. John D. Stufflebeem said the stepped-up attacks on air defenses, command centers and airfields have eliminated much of the threat to U.S. warplanes.

"I have not seen any reports that they are returning fire on our aircraft," Stufflebeem said. "Their ability to respond is falling away."

Now, helped by airborne controllers, U.S. jets are able to concentrate their firepower, he said.

"A controller has the ability to ID targets and then can bring in under his control those aircraft to destroy those," said Stufflebeem, deputy director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

"An example would be tanks, artillery, surface-to-air systems that are mobile. We are now forcing the targets out, to be able to attack, that we might not have had as much access to before."

Officials have said that two AC-130 gunships armed with cannons, Gatling guns and a howitzer are flying above Kandahar. The gunships are also known to fly as support for special operations forces, leading one Green Beret officer to term the turboprop plane "a special operator's best friend."

Pentagon officials have said that other special operations forces - including Air Force helicopter pilots and combat search and rescue personnel - are now based in Uzbekistan.

And representatives of the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance forces have said they have linked up with British and American commandos in rebel-held areas of northern Afghanistan.

Stufflebeem said attacks Tuesday struck 12 target areas, including air defenses, anti-aircraft artillery sites, armor and radar, ammunition in vehicle storage depots and military training facilities. And an additional 53,000 humanitarian rations were air dropped by C-17 cargo planes, bringing the total to nearly 400,000.

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