General Richard Myers said today, ”This fight has just begun,” regarding the intensifying battle over Kandahar in southern Afghanistan and the ongoing hunt for Osama bin Laden, the prime suspect of the Sept. 11 attacks, in the mountains of northeastern Afghanistan.
Over 1,300 Marines from the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit’s Reconnaissance Platoon are stationed at a desert airbase 55 miles from Kandahar. The forces are conducting daily search missions aboard Cobra helicopter gunships and Huey reconnaissance helicopters for al-Qaida and Taliban troops.
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said the Marines would be used to interdict Taliban and al-Qaida troops escaping the city and for reconnaissance missions to identify targets around southern Afghanistan.
Rumsfeld said the Pentagon would not rule out using U.S. Marines to fight in the intensifying ground battles around Kandahar, but said it was unlikely.
“We don’t have any plans at the present time to be using U.S. forces in that way,” Rumsfeld said.
Rumsfeld added the U.S. was “by no means approaching the end of the campaign,” saying the war was entering a new phase that would “increasingly put American lives at risk.”
Australian special operations troops also arrived to bolster security at the air base, that was seized nine days ago from Taliban forces.
U.S. warplanes continued heavy air strikes near the Kandahar airport, concentrating on the elaborate network of tunnels and caves formerly used by the anti-Soviet mujahadeen forces in the 1980s.
The Pentagon said it believes there are “pockets of resistance” around Kandahar, the last remaining stronghold of the Taliban.
Meanwhile, on the ground, anti-Taliban troops remained locked in an intense battle with Taliban and al-Qaida forces.
Pashtun leaders have been negotiating for a surrender of the city, but Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar declared that his troops would never concede Kandahar.
The Pentagon has said it opposes any surrender or amnesty deal for the several thousand Taliban or al-Qaida fighters believed to still be in Kandahar.
While the heaviest attacks continue in Kandahar, the Pentagon said it was also targeting “pockets of resistance” in areas near Mazar-e-Sharif, Kabul, and Kunduz.
The Pentagon reported that the Northern Alliance had surrounded over 2,000 Taliban and non-Taliban Arab fighters near Mazar-e-Sharif and expected the units to surrender soon.
Searching for “targets” in northern Afghanistan
In northeastern Afghanistan, U.S. jets continued to bomb Taliban and al-Qaida caves and tunnels in the Jalalabad and the Tora Bora regions.
U.S. Special Forces have been working with local tribesmen to hunt down bin Laden and his associates who reportedly remain hidden in an underground hide-out near the White Mountains of Tora Bora.
The Pentagon maintained that U.S. Special Forces troops in northeastern Afghanistan are identifying potential targets for U.S. bombers, rather than attacking specific cave sites or searching for the terrorist suspect and his associates.
Regional security chief Hazrat Ali told reporters that between 1,500 and 2,000 Pashtun fighters had joined U.S. Special Operation Forces to prepare an attack on a fortified cave complex in the White Mountains, 35 miles southwest of Jalalabad. The Pentagon would not confirm this report.
Local witnesses from Jalalabad reported that the heavy U.S. bombing killed over 150 residents from a village near the northeastern city and over fifty others from another nearby town.
The Pentagon said the U.S. jets purposefully bombed Afghan villages, saying the number of civilian casualties could not be accurately verified since third-party witnesses are limited access to bombed areas.