"Modest Number" of U.S. Troops in Afghanistan
The defense secretary said U.S. ground forces were also working as “liaisons” to help coordinate air attacks with opposition ground forces.
“They are uniformed military personnel who are assisting with resupply, assisting with communications, liaison, assisting with targeting, and providing the kind of very specific information which is helpful to the air effort,” Rumsfeld said.
Rumsfeld spoke following a meeting with his British counterpart, Defense Minister Geoff Hoon.
The secretary also confirmed U.S. Ground forces have entered southern Afghanistan on several occasions. He would not detail the specific number of troops or their exact mission for security reasons.
Hoon, meanwhile, said no British forces were in Afghanistan “at the present time.”
The New York Times reported today that U.S. troops entered southern Afghanistan about 10 days ago to gather intelligence from Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar’s compound near Kandahar. According to the story, the mission did not yield as much information on bin Laden and al-Qaida as the Pentagon expected.
Amid talk of a stalemate in Afghanistan and increasing pressure to resolve air attacks before the Muslim holy month of Ramadan in mid-November, Rumsfeld said the U.S. did not exclude considering an expansion of ground operations.
Hoon said that it would be unwise to announce whether or not airstrikes would pause or be limited during Ramadan.
“We obviously have regard for the sensitivities of Ramadan. It is something that we will consider very carefully,” Hoon said. “It wouldn’t make military sense to announce up front what our intentions were during that period.”
U.S. air campaign continues
Rear Admiral John Stufflebeem said today U.S. ground troops were not presently in southern Afghanistan, saying regional opposition forces had not asked for such support.
Instead, he explained, the U.S. would continue to perform specific missions in southern Afghanistan, similar to the raid ten days ago on the Taliban leader’s compound.
“We demonstrated in the raid that occurred that we do have access and we can pick the location and the time of when we will strike, and we can do that just about anywhere in the country,” he said.
The U.S. carried out about 100 air strikes today, most against Taliban troops protecting Kabul and Mazar-e-Sharif.
Targets also included Taliban forces around the key northern towns of Kunduz, Bamian, and the northern Shomali Plain. The military has reportedly increased its efforts to destroy the sophisticated tunnels and caves used by Afghan armies during the Soviet invasion, Stufflebeem said.
In Kandahar, the southern Taliban stronghold, officials shut off electricity Tuesday night due to ongoing U.S. raids.
Opposition forces near Herat, led by regional militia leader Ismail Khan, said U.S. forces needed to increase their ammunition drops to help rebel troops advance against Taliban soldiers in western Afghanistan.
Pentagon officials have said a limited list of accessible airfields has made ammunition drops to Afghan opposition forces in the West a difficult task.
Diplomacy and reaction
Marine Corps Gen. Tommy Franks, the U.S. general commanding the operation in Afghanistan, met today with Uzbek President Islam Karimov and military officials in Tashkent, the capital of the former Soviet republic.
Franks told reporters Tuesday the U.S. would keep up its anti-terrorism campaign as long as it took to destroy the al-Qaida network and punish any government that harbors terrorists, despite international pressure to pause during Ramadan.
“We are on the timelines set to achieve our objectives,” he said. “We’re committed to this for as long as it takes.”
Franks also said that the U.S. would keep all military options open, including further deployment of ground forces.
Also today, Pakistani President General Pervez Musharaff urged a quick end to the war in Afghanistan, which he said has devastated the impoverished country.
“I only hope that this is achieved before Ramadan. There is a possibility,” he said. “But if that does not happen, I would discuss the matter with [President Bush] but I wouldn’t be pressing him as such.”
Musharaff said he would permit Afghan refugees to enter Pakistan as long as international humanitarian groups will provide assistance for them.
International humanitarian organizations estimate nearly three million Afghans have been displaced due to the U.S. bombings against the Taliban.