U.S. warplanes hunting caves across Afghanistan

Bombings intended to collapse, seal off tunnels and bunkers

War On Terrorism

October 30, 2001|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

ABOARD THE USS CARL VINSON -- U.S. warplanes, after forcing many troops out of their hideaways, hit hard at Taliban front lines north of Kabul yesterday.

The attacks were proceeding well, Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld said in Washington, going according to the plan "to put pressure on over a sustained period."

For pilots on this nuclear-powered aircraft carrier in the Arabian Sea, that has come to include what they call "cave hunting." In recent days, the planes launched from this ship have gone on missions to strike at the underground hideaways that loom large in the lore of fighting in Afghanistan.

"We've shifted more from facilities and the command and control and those kinds of things to now where we're focusing more on the troops, the tanks, the command bunkers, caves," Rear Adm. Thomas E. Zelibor said yesterday. "That's the target set we're looking at now."

"Things are going well," Zelibor said, and the Vinson carrier group of eight ships under his command is "proceeding along the time line" established by his superiors.

At his Pentagon news conference, Rumsfeld said American airstrikes have killed some leaders of the Taliban military and al-Qaida network, but not the top ones.

"There's no question but that the Taliban and al-Qaida people, military, have been killed," he said. "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."

He also suggested that there would be no respite from the bombing during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. "The Taliban and al-Qaida are unlikely to take a holiday," he said.

"Given the fact that they have killed thousands of Americans and people from 50 or 60 other countries, and given the fact that they have sworn to continue such attacks, we have an obligation to defend the American people, and we intend to work diligently to do that," Rumsfeld said.

Responding to suggestions that the military effort might have bogged down, Rumsfeld repeated warnings that the anti-terrorism effort would not be a short one.

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

Rumsfeld also addressed charges that the U.S. bombing was killing civilians. "We know victory will not come without a cost," he said. "Let us be clear, no nation in human history has done more to avoid civilian casualties" than the United States.

Residents of the Afghan capital, Kabul, said U.S. bombing killed at least 13 civilians Sunday.

Responsibility for "every single casualty in this war, be they innocent Afghans or innocent Americans" lay with the Taliban and al-Qaida, Rumsfeld said.

He was joined by Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who said the airstrikes Sunday used about 65 carrier-based aircraft. The four-star Air Force general said there were fewer targets left and the bombing is now focused on six areas, mostly in northern Afghanistan.

Earlier yesterday, Pentagon spokeswoman Victoria Clarke told reporters the military had extended its bombing of Afghanistan northward toward the border with Tajikistan. She said the objectives for yesterday's bombing included the Taliban military's armor and troop concentrations, and that bombers were trying to work systematically through the complex system of caves.

Jets from the Vinson have engaged in 1,000 sorties to Afghanistan and dropped more than 700,000 pounds of ordnance, a ship's spokesman said.

It was unclear how long the Vinson's strike fighters have been targeting the caves, although Zelibor said "there was more emphasis placed on it recently."

"Those have been part of the target set all the way along," he said. "It's just that where the emphasis has started increasing on that is more recently. I wouldn't specifically call it any particular day."

One day last week, a senior pilot on the Vinson told others to prepare for a so-called "cave day."

"We're going to lock this place down," the pilot said.

It would seem that destroying Afghanistan's vast network of caves might be a daunting task.

For generations, Afghanistan's caves, bunkers, tunnels and aqueducts have been used as hiding places for rugged fighters, as well as secretive places to store weapons. In many ways, the caves proved to be a major stumbling block for the Soviets, who invaded Afghanistan in 1979 and retreated in defeat a decade later. The Soviets, however, lacked the sophisticated weaponry now being brought to bear on Afghanistan.

"When you look at the full range of our capabilities, that's not necessarily a tough thing to do as far as hitting the entrances or exits because of the types of weapons we can use," Zelibor said. "Whether they can actually seal them off, that may be a hard thing."

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