U.S. Special Forces have begun the ground phase of America's war against terrorism in Afghanistan, operating in small numbers in southern Afghanistan in support of the CIA's effort in the Taliban heartland, defense officials said yesterday.
Their presence on the battlefield comes amid growing indications that the war's intensity is about to increase dramatically after 11 days of U.S. and British airstrikes that Pentagon officials say have pummeled the defenses of the Taliban regime's militia.
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The number of U.S. personnel on the ground is just a handful now and is unlikely to ever resemble the large conventional forces assembled in the Persian Gulf War a decade ago, defense officials said. But their presence marks a turning point in only the second week of the conflict, heightening the risk to U.S. forces and underscoring the seriousness of the Bush administration's commitment to prosecuting its war against terrorism.
The new Special Forces mission in southern Afghanistan is designed to expand an ongoing CIA effort to encourage ethnic Pashtun leaders to break away from the Taliban militia, a senior defense official said.
But another official said additional Special Forces are likely to be deployed soon, and could take on other missions such as reconnaissance, target designation for aircraft and, on rare occasions, direct attacks on Taliban or terrorist leaders.
Disclosure of the new Special Forces mission came on a day when a number of prominent officials commented on the inevitability of ground troops.
In London, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who has been President Bush's closest ally in the campaign, said "the next few weeks will be the most testing time but we are on track to achieve the goals we set out." He added: "I don't think we have ever contemplated this being done by air power alone."
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, briefing reporters at the Pentagon, declined to comment on the presence of Special Forces in Afghanistan "until we have an activity that is significant and noticeable." But Rumsfeld noted that aircraft "cannot really do sufficient damage. . . . They can't crawl around on the ground and find people."
Joining Rumsfeld, Air Force Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, added: "We are prepared to use the full spectrum of our military capabilities. Obviously, that's not just bombers, that's just not carrier-based aircraft; that's other assets as well. We talked earlier about Special Forces."
Myers concluded with a direct appeal to all U.S. military forces and the American people. "I firmly believe that this is the most important task that the U.S. military has been handed since the Second World War," said Myers, who as a fighter pilot flew 600 combat hours over Vietnam. "And what's at stake here is no less than our freedom to exist as an American people. . . . So to every soldier, sailor, airmen, Marine, and Coast Guardsmen, and DOD civilian, and our allies and friends, I say, 'Let's stay ready, let's stay focused.' "
As Myers and Rumsfeld hinted at the impending ground war, EC-130 "Commando Solo" psychological operations aircraft broadcast instructions to civilians to follow when U.S. troops arrive: "Attention! People of Afghanistan, United States forces will be moving through your area," according to transcripts released by the Pentagon.
"We are here for Osama bin Laden, al Qaeda and those who protect them! Please, for your own safety, stay off bridges and roadways, and do not interfere with our troops or military operations. If you do this, you will not be harmed."
The Bush administration holds bin Laden and al Qaeda, the global extremist network he commands, responsible for the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington. The Taliban, Afghanistan's ruling militia, has harbored bin Laden and supported his infrastructure since bin Laden was expelled from Sudan in 1996.
In northern Afghanistan, sources with the Northern Alliance opposition group said yesterday that U.S. military officers arrived on Wednesday aboard two helicopters to hold meetings with Gen. Rashid Dostum, an ethnic Uzbek warlord fighting the Taliban, the Associated Press reported. U.S. military officials have said since the war began Oct. 7 that Army Special Forces have been operating in northern Afghanistan to coordinate with the Northern Alliance, a coalition comprised primarily of ethnic Uzbeks and Tajiks.