U.S. troops operating in Afghanistan

Ground forces aiding Northern Alliance, directing bombing

`A very modest number'

Strikes on Taliban called more effective since soldiers arrived

War On Terrorism

Military Response

October 31, 2001|By Tom Bowman and Mark Matthews | Tom Bowman and Mark Matthews,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - A "very modest number" of U.S. ground forces are operating in northern Afghanistan, providing assistance to the anti-Taliban rebels and coordinating bombing runs with American warplanes, Pentagon officials said yesterday.

"We do have a very modest number of ground troops in the country," Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld told reporters at the Pentagon, for the first time acknowledging that American ground forces are operating with the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance.

The "uniformed military personnel" are assisting the rebels with food, ammunition and communications, and providing U.S. pilots with detailed targeting information, said Rumsfeld, who briefed reporters with British Defense Minister Geoff Hoon.

"And because they are there now, the [bombing] effort has improved in its effectiveness over what had been the case previously," Rumsfeld said. As the U.S. enters its fourth week of air attacks, "considerably more than 50 percent" of airstrikes are against Taliban front lines in the north, though yesterday, that figure was expected to rise to 80 percent, he said.

Rumsfeld would not divulge the numbers, service branch or location of the U.S. troops, other than to say they were in the northern part of the country "with a very limited number of opposition elements."

Among the U.S. troops in the region around Afghanistan are Army Rangers and Green Berets, Air Force commandos, hundreds of soldiers from the 10th Mountain Division and more than 2,000 Marines aboard a troopship in the Arabian Sea.

The Northern Alliance is locked in battles with Taliban forces in a line that stretches from north of the capital city of Kabul to Mazar-e Sharif in the north-central region and at Herat near the western border with Iran.

Weeks of cooperation

In the past several weeks, U.S. intelligence operatives have been meeting with the Northern Alliance rebels, Pentagon officials have said. Moreover, though not previously confirmed by the Pentagon, alliance rebels linked up with special operations troops in the north after the aerial bombardment began Oct. 7, according to alliance political representatives in New York and Washington.

Asked whether U.S. troops were on the ground in the southern part of the country, where the leaders of the Taliban are said to be located, Rumsfeld said only: "We've had others on the ground who have come in and out of the south."

More than 100 Army Rangers and other special operations forces staged a two-pronged raid two weeks ago in the south near Kandahar, the Taliban's spiritual center, attacking an airfield and a command-and-control center.

Rear Adm. John D. Stufflebeem, deputy director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said deploying U.S. troops into southern Afghanistan is more difficult because it is "an extremely remote area" and because the Pashtun tribes there, unlike the Northern Alliance, have not requested assistance.

Rumsfeld stressed that the U.S. forces were on the ground to assist and were not running the Northern Alliance's military campaign against the Taliban.

"These people have been fighting in that country for ages," the defense secretary said. "You're not going to send a few people in and tell them they should turn right, turn left, go slow or go fast. ... They're going to move when they think it makes sense."

The United States also has started using C-130 cargo planes to drop ammunition for the Northern Alliance, though it takes days for the supplies to reach the front lines because the rebels are transporting them with horses and mules.

The twin announcements of American troops on the ground and the greater targeting of Taliban troops reflect an enhanced effort to assist the alliance. Initially, the Bush administration was reluctant to support the rebels, who are opposed by Pakistan, a key U.S. ally in the Afghanistan operation.

Asked whether the United States should quickly expand the number of troops on the ground, as some lawmakers have urged, Rumsfeld said: "Well, were anyone to make that suggestion, it would reflect a lack of understanding or knowledge as to the effort we've been putting into it. It is not easily done."

Hoon, the British defense secretary, said there were no British troops in Afghanistan "at the present time." He said British ships, including an aircraft carrier refitted to carry helicopters, and about 4,200 British troops will be assigned to Operation Veritas, the United Kingdom's part of the U.S.-led operation against the Taliban militia and Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida network.

Neither Hoon nor Rumsfeld would say whether there would be a bombing pause during Ramadan, the month-long Muslim period of fasting and prayer that begins in mid-November.

Pakistan's president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, said last week that during Ramadan he would "hope for restraint" because military activity during that time could have "negative effects" throughout the Muslim world.

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