Rumsfeld says victory over al-Qaida will require ground troops in addition to air power
WASHINGTON (AP) – Victory in Afghanistan will require putting troops on the ground in addition to bombing terrorist and Taliban targets from the air, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said Thursday.
Rumsfeld made no explicit reference to U.S. ground forces but stressed that warplanes alone – while effective so far in bombing buildings, tanks and troops – will not be enough to rid Afghanistan of al-Qaida, the shadowy ring of terrorists believed to be behind the Sept. 11 attacks.
”There are things you can find from the air,” he said, including clusters of enemy troops and weaponry. ”But you cannot really do sufficient damage” with air power alone. ”We simply must go and find them.”
Warplanes ”can’t crawl around on the ground and find people,” he told a Pentagon news conference in an apparent allusion to U.S. special operations forces trained to conduct clandestine warfare.
Rumsfeld said that on Friday he would fly to Whiteman Air Force Base, Mo., to pay tribute to B-2 stealth bomber crews. They have played an important role by flying 44-hour missions from Whiteman to Afghanistan and then to a recovery base in the Indian Ocean – the longest missions in history.
Appearing with Rumsfeld, Air Force Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said all members of the armed forces must understand the gravity of the challenge they face in Afghanistan.
”I firmly believe that this is the most important task that the U.S. military has been handed since the Second World War,” he said. ”What’s at stake here is no less than our freedom to exist as an American people. So there’s no option but success.”
Rumsfeld said he has seen ”snippets of intelligence information” in recent days that suggest the daily U.S. bombing has created a crescendo of pressure on al-Qaida and its Taliban supporters.
”The level of effect has improved in recent days,” he said, adding that some in the Taliban are ”starting to decide that they’d prefer not to be part of Taliban. And we have seen some movement of what we believe to be the al-Qaida forces and they have been specifically targeted while they were moving.”
Rumsfeld said some in the Taliban are defecting to the opposition, including the northern alliance. Echoing that comment, Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage said in a British television news interview that some Taliban fighters have put down their weapons in border areas near Pakistan.
Armitage said he did not know of any defections among the four or five top leaders of the Taliban militia.
The Washington representative of the northern alliance, Haron Amin, criticized the U.S. military on Thursday for not bombing Taliban front-line positions north of Kabul and elsewhere in Afghanistan. Northern alliance forces along that line cannot advance on the capital and other key cities without U.S. bombing of the Taliban forces there, he said.
”Our ground commanders are ready and they want to make the move, and there’s no coordination,” he said. Amin later said that Kabul was ”the least important to us” of several strategic cities, such as Mazar-e-Sharif in the north.
Myers said an undetermined number of al-Qaida leaders have been ”caught up” in the U.S. attacks.
Myers alluded to moving beyond the air phase of the military campaign in Afghanistan, which began Oct. 7. Twice he said the United States was prepared to use the full spectrum of its military capabilities.
”Obviously, that’s not just bombers, that’s just not carrier-based aircraft; that’s other assets as well,” he said. ”We talked earlier about special forces. So that’s one piece.”
On Wednesday, U.S. officials disclosed that an unspecified number of special operations forces had been positioned aboard the USS Kitty Hawk, an aircraft carrier in the Indian Ocean, and were ready for combat.
Rumsfeld has left unclear the exact role of U.S. special operations forces in Afghanistan. Some believe it could be limited to training and giving other assistance to the northern alliance and other opposition military forces now attempting to take advantage of the daily U.S. bombing of Taliban military forces.
Others believe it will require – and may already include – the insertion of Army Rangers or other special operations forces to conduct search-and-destroy missions by helicopter and on foot.
Myers declined to comment on an Iranian news report that U.S. special operations troops were now on the ground in Afghanistan.
Sources with opposition forces in Afghanistan said Thursday that American military officers arrived in northern Afghanistan on Wednesday aboard two helicopters to hold meetings with Gen. Rashid Dostum, an ethnic Uzbek warlord with the northern alliance fighting to rid their country of the Taliban.
Rumsfeld said U.S. officials would not discuss ground operations ”until we have an activity that is significant and noticeable.” Later, in an appearance with his Italian counterpart, Rumsfeld said disclosing the present or future role of special operations forces would aid the Taliban and al-Qaida.
”My interest is not to simplify things for the other side but to complexify them, if that is a word,” he said.
Other U.S. officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Thursday’s U.S. bombardment involved slightly fewer aircraft than on Wednesday. One official said it totaled 80-85 strike aircraft, including about 70 aboard carriers.
Myers said strike aircraft flew from the USS Theodore Roosevelt on Wednesday for the first time since the bombing campaign began. The Roosevelt recently entered the Arabian Sea and is expected to relieve the USS Enterprise, which already is overdue to complete its standard six-month deployment.
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