About 600 Marines are currently based at an airstrip some 60 miles southwest of Kandahar, and there should be a total of 1,000 Marines on the ground within a few days, Gen. James Mattis, the Marines’ commander, said.
The Marines were sent to obstruct Taliban and al-Qaida escape routes to neighboring Pakistan, carry out quick ground strikes and help identify bombing targets.
In their first operation last night, the Marines sent attack helicopters to follow up U.S. airstrikes on a 15-vehicle convoy heading toward their airstrip base.
Speaking at a news conference at the U.S. Central Command headquarters in Tampa, Florida, Army Gen. Tommy Franks said the military operation was now concentrating on the areas around the southern city of Kandahar and the eastern towns of Jalalabad and Tora Bora.
The Taliban said their supreme leader, Mullah Mohammad Omar, is still in Kandahar, the last city still under their control. The militia has said it intends to fight to the death for its spiritual capital.
Taliban officials did not give any indication as to the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden, the head of the al-Qaida terrorist organization and lead suspect in the Sept. 11 attacks on the U.S.
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said while the “operation in Afghanistan is proceeding exceedingly well,” the most difficult steps may lie ahead as the military shifts focus from Afghanistan’s cities to its caves in the search for bin Laden and his followers.
Supported by U.S. air strikes and special forces, anti-Taliban opposition troops wrested control of about 90 percent of Afghanistan from Taliban hands in the past three weeks. But, Rumsfeld said, “anyone who believes it’s over in these towns are just wrong.”
In Spin Boldak, a border town that lies on the main road between Kandahar and Pakistan, anti-Taliban tribal forces are vying for power as Taliban control of the town crumbles.
According to a witness in Spin Boldak, “now there is no Taliban rule over Spin Boldak,” the Afghan Islamic Press reported. “The Achakzai and Nurzai tribes have taken over everything.”
The same witness said he saw crowds of people looting blankets and other aid supplies from relief vehicles and warehouses, highlighting fears of chaos and abuses if the various Pashtun tribes are free to compete for control of the town.
Opposition leaders say four anti-Taliban commanders from the Achakzai and Nurzai tribes are negotiating a deal to divvy up control of Spin Boldak, known as a key point on a route for illegal trade with Pakistan. It is frequented by smugglers and serves as a base of operations for the powerful Afghan and Pakistani trucking mafia.
It is still unclear whether the Taliban have abandoned the city, or whether they are sending troops to the frontlines near Kandahar. The Afghan Islamic Press reported some 5,000 anti-Taliban forces had entered the town.
Meanwhile, in Kabul, uniformed Russians with Kalashnikov assault rifles have occupied a patch of land in the heart of the Afghan capital.
The 100 men from Russia’s Emergencies Ministry set up a base there after dark Monday, and say they are building a field hospital or temporary Russian embassy.
The United Nations spokesman in Kabul said Russia had not warned the U.N. of the men’s arrival, but the Northern Alliance foreign minister, Abdullah Abdullah, said they had established themselves there with his blessing.
Weapons of mass destruction
Franks, who heads the military operation in Afghanistan, said the United States has identified more than 40 sites inside Afghanistan that could have been used to develop weapons of mass destruction.
The “paraphernalia” found at Afghan laboratories so far had not provided evidence of biological or chemical weapons, and it is possible the items could have been used for legitimate research. Authorities say they will be testing all facilities where the suspicious materials were found, Franks said.
“We are very systematically going about our way of visiting each one of those [facilities] … and we’ll continue to visit them until we have gone through all of them and performed the analyses that we need to perform to ensure ourselves that we do not have evidence of WMD,” Franks said.
If authorities do find evidence of weapons of mass destruction, they will take careful measures to ensure such devices are removed from the country, Rumsfeld said.