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U.S. Strikes “Preparing a Battlefield” for a Ground War

However, the opposition Northern Alliance has yet to launch a long-awaited offensive against Taliban positions, the Pentagon said today.

Air strikes are focusing on tunnel and cave networks — where al-Qaida forces hide — around the Afghan capital, Kabul, and the key northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif, where the Northern Alliance has hoped to make progress against the Taliban.

B-52 bombers also targeted Taliban troops in the hills outside the northern town of Taloqan, near the border with Tajikistan. Taloqan had served as the opposition capital until Taliban troops overran it in September 2000.

U.S. rockets today demolished a hotel and a vehicle used by Taliban fighters in Kabul. Two B-52 bombers dropped nearly 20 bombs on a Taliban base at Estargech, a Taliban-held village 20 miles north of Kabul.

Despite the delay in the opposition offensive, there is evidence that Taliban troops have suffered “substantial losses.” The Taliban has not returned fire at opposition forces for days, Rear Adm. John Stufflebeem, deputy director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said.

Stufflebeem confirmed reports that a U.S. military assessment team is checking three former Soviet airfields in Tajikistan, which borders Afghanistan in the north, to see if they could serve as bases for air strikes against the Taliban.

Similar teams were inspecting facilities in “all of the countries that have offered assistance,” preferably those closer to Afghanistan, Stufflebeem said.

The bases would be used to expand the bombing campaign, facilitate humanitarian aid flights and strengthen support for opposition forces.

Meanwhile, U.S. special forces have been dispatched to assist with bombing raid logistics and to help rebel groups plan assaults on Taliban lines, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Richard Myers said Sunday.

“The more teams we get on the ground, the more effectively we’ll bring [rebels’] power to bear on the Taliban lines,” he told NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

U.S. officials confident, Taliban defiant

With an increased number of contacts on the ground in northern Afghanistan, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said today, the effectiveness and accuracy of U.S. bombing raids have improved significantly, and the military campaign in Afghanistan should not be as prolonged as was initially thought.

“I don’t think there has ever been a bombing campaign as effective and precise,” Rumsfeld said at a news conference with India’s Defense Minister George Fernandes.

“Do I think the operation in Afghanistan will take years? No, I don’t,” he said. “I think it is something that is being very aggressively addressed. We will take the least possible time.”

Rumsfeld returned to Washington Monday after visiting India, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Pakistan over the weekend.

Taliban officials, meanwhile, said their forces were “preparing for a long war,” and chided the United States for not fighting against Taliban forces on the ground.

“If [the United States] are so powerful then why are they not sending in their soldiers to fight us face to face? Are they afraid?” Taliban chief spokesman Amir Khan Muttaqi said.

President Bush has launched a week-long campaign to shore up support for the military effort in Afghanistan, starting with a meeting today with Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika.

Later this week, the president plans to meet with the leaders of Britain, France, India, Brazil and Ireland. On Tuesday, President Bush will speak via satellite to a terrorism conference in Warsaw, Poland, about the importance of his international coalition against terrorism.

The White House reported today it has been successful in winning the support of the Arab world. When the Arab League dismissed Osama bin Laden’s appeal to Muslims to join the holy war against the “infidel” West, it showed “how isolated bin Laden is from fellow Muslims and the rest of the world,” White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said.

Osama bin Laden, prime suspect in the Sept. 11 attacks against the United States, released the videotaped call for jihad on Saturday.

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