General says U.S. attacks on track

Franks plays down early victory, cites success of bombing

War On Terrorism

The Nation

November 09, 2001|By Tom Bowman and Marego Athans | Tom Bowman and Marego Athans,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - The U.S. Army general who is commanding the military campaign in Afghanistan said yesterday that the monthlong action is proceeding according to plan, brushing aside critics who say that the bombing has been too light and that a decisive victory is needed before winter.

"We like the progress we have made up to this point," said Gen. Tommy R. Franks, commander in chief of all U.S. forces in the Middle East and Central Asia, appearing at a Pentagon news conference with Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld.

"We're on our time line. This effort is 24 hours a day, and it will continue to be 24 hours a day. We'll be at this for as long as it takes."

Franks, a lanky 56-year-old officer with a Texas drawl who was wounded three times during the Vietnam War, has headed the U.S. Central Command since last year. Yesterday, he made his first public appearances in Washington since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, and today he will brief President Bush at the White House on the progress of the war effort.

The four-star officer sought to dampen expectations among some lawmakers and retired officers that a victory must come soon.

"Some say, `We need to do something quick, we need to do something before winter,'" Franks said. "I simply don't take that as a form of guidance or pressure."

Despite assertions from both Bush and Rumsfeld over the past two months that Osama bin Laden is a target of the military campaign, Franks suggested otherwise yesterday.

"We have not said that Osama bin Laden is a target of this effort," he said. "What we're about is the destruction of the al-Qaida network as well as - I'll call them a non-state, the Taliban that provide harbor to bin Laden and al-Qaida."

Asked later about Franks' comment, a senior defense official asserted that the global anti-terror fight has, from the start, been about more than bin Laden.

But Bush said in September that he wanted bin Laden "dead or alive." And Rumsfeld said two weeks ago that the U.S. military was doing everything it could to find the suspected terrorist leader.

"Have we located him? No," Rumsfeld said then. "Are we continuing the effort? You bet. Do we expect to get him? Yes."

Michael E. O'Hanlon, a defense analyst at the Brookings Institution, said that Franks is wrong. "The president has made it clear that Osama bin Laden needs to be taken off the scene," he said.

Some administration officials worry, however, that if bin Laden is seen as the principal goal of the military campaign and is never found, the United States could never realistically declare victory. Franks and other defense officials have acknowledged that they do not know where bin Laden is or how many of the Taliban leadership or troops have been killed.

"What I can tell you, though, is however many Taliban troops were in this at the beginning, that same number are not in this today," Franks said.

The general dismissed criticism that the initial bombing was too light, took too long to target Taliban troop positions and included far fewer daily missions than in Kosovo or in the Persian Gulf war.

"Do I believe this campaign plan was too timid?" Franks said. "Absolutely not."

Michael Vickers, a former Green Beret and CIA official with experience in the region, argued that the attacks against the Taliban and al-Qaida should be heavier.

"By any measure, it's not a large use of air power compared with Kosovo," Vickers said. "It doesn't seem like a very intense campaign."

Moreover, Vickers said he thought there should be more missions by U.S. special operations soldiers, perhaps a series of commando raids to keep the Taliban constantly off balance. He also noted that the Northern Alliance began receiving ammunition and other supplies from the United States only two weeks ago.

Rumsfeld said those who compare the Afghan campaign to other military conflicts misunderstand the current obstacles. The long distances that U.S. pilots must fly from carriers or foreign bases to strike Taliban and terrorist targets in Afghanistan, he said, limit the number of possible airstrikes.

In the meantime, Franks said, the Northern Alliance is locked in a "gunfight" with Taliban forces over the key city of Mazar-e Sharif.

"We are interested in Mazar-e Sharif, because it would provide a land bridge up to Uzbekistan," he said. Such a bridge, Franks said, would allow the United States to send reinforcements for the rebel troops and humanitarian relief.

There are dozens of Army special operations teams in northern Afghanistan, Pentagon officials say, and more than 1,000 troops from the Army's 10th Mountain Division in neighboring Uzbekistan. More than 2,000 Marines are on ships in the Arabian Sea. Britain, Germany and Italy have committed thousands from their forces.

But Franks would not say whether there is a need for more ground troops.

"We are in fact in contact with a great many of the forces of all our services, discussing the possibilities for the way ahead," he said.

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