Ground war seen likelier, U.S. says

In face of airstrikes, Taliban disperse into residential areas

British commandos ready

Rumsfeld declines to set timetable for Afghanistan invasion

War On Terrorism

Military Response

October 26, 2001|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - After enduring three weeks of aerial assaults, the Taliban fighters in Afghanistan are proving a tenacious and resilient foe, leading to the increased likelihood that sustained ground action - either by anti-Taliban rebels or U.S.-led allied forces - will be needed to finally put an end to the regime.

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said yesterday that the U.S. airstrikes are continuing to help the anti-Taliban forces mount ground offensives, while the British are poised to dispatch hundreds of commandos to join the fight.

Meanwhile, retired military officers and defense analysts speculated that additional U.S. ground action will be necessary to root out the stubborn Taliban defenders, who are now moving their fighters and equipment into residential areas.

It's unclear whether any new ground action would be similar to the two U.S. Special Operations raids that took place last weekend in southern Afghanistan or would involve more traditional land combat by larger numbers of foot soldiers.

Rumsfeld told reporters yesterday that he was not surprised, like some others in the Pentagon, by the Taliban's survival.

After all, he said, Afghan fighters are battle-hardened, having spent the past two decades fighting Soviet invaders and each other.

"We have to do what we can to assist those forces on the ground," he said, referring to the Northern Alliance and other anti-Taliban groups, many of them in the south. "And that's what we're doing."

The Taliban aircraft and armaments have been greatly diminished by the U.S.-led attacks, he said, along with their "ability to effectively oppose the forces on the ground." Those opposition forces "are in a position to be more successful."

For the past five days, the Pentagon has made more of an effort to target the Taliban's front-line troops north of the capital city, Kabul; the strategic northern city of Mazar-e Sharif; and Herat to the west, near the Iranian border.

Northern Alliance officials, however, have said they are still outnumbered in those areas and are pressing for more bombing of Taliban positions.

One retired Army general, speaking on condition of anonymity, said it was a mistake not to help the Northern Alliance earlier with more targeted airstrikes.

"We should have made a decision long ago to get them some success," the general said, noting that the Taliban are resupplying in some areas. "The bombing doesn't seem to be working."

Part of the reason for the limited bombing in support of the Northern Alliance is political. Pakistan, a key American ally in the region, opposes the alliance and fears its members might dominate a post-Taliban government.

The general said that Pentagon planners must look at the option of employing U.S. ground troops to a greater degree than the two weekend raids into southern Afghanistan.

Those raids involved sending more than 100 Army Rangers and other Special Operations soldiers against an airfield and a Taliban command and control center.

"I think you need to have that option," the general said. "I think they're heading in that direction. You've got to have eyes on the ground."

The general also said the Pentagon had underestimated the Taliban, much as defense officials underestimated the staying power of Slobodan Milosevic in Serbia. The United States can strike a psychological blow to the Taliban by "getting a success on the ground," he said.

Yesterday, Rumsfeld brushed aside a question about whether the Taliban fighters, many of whom are dispersing into residential areas and hiding their armaments, must be challenged by ground forces. "We don't have anything to announce in regard to that," he said.

Still, both Rumsfeld and Air Force Gen. Richard B. Myers, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, have repeatedly said the bombing campaign is designed to "set the conditions" for "follow-on" operations or "sustained" military actions against both the Taliban and Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida network.

And both men have often said that the full spectrum of U.S. forces will be used.

With winter and the Muslim holy month of Ramadan approaching, the retired Army general said, it is important that there be some type of victory on the ground against the Taliban.

And Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said this week that it would be preferable to wrap up the military campaign before winter, though Rumsfeld has repeatedly said there is no timetable and Myers said Sunday that it could go into next summer and beyond.

Yesterday, Rumsfeld was pressed to explain seemingly mixed messages coming out of the Pentagon. On Wednesday, Rear Adm. John D. Stufflebeem, in briefing reporters, called the Taliban "tough warriors" who are "doggedly" hanging on to power, while a week earlier Marine Lt. Gen. Gregory Newbold, the Joint Chiefs' director of operations, said from the same podium that the Taliban's combat power had been "eviscerated."

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