Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said targeted U.S. air strikes over the last five days had killed several Taliban and al-Qaida leaders near Kabul, Afghanistan’s capital, and the southern stronghold of Kandahar.
Rumsfeld said several hundred U.S. Special Forces troops are coordinating with southern anti-Taliban tribes and with northern anti-Taliban groups like the Northern Alliance to track down Taliban and al-Qaida forces in southern Afghanistan.
He said none of the U.S. troops have been killed in Afghanistan, although several have been injured during operations.
News organizations today widely reported Mohammed Atef, al-Qaida’s top military commander was killed recently by an American air attack. Rumsfeld said those reports seemed “very authoritative,” but he could not confirm that information.
“[Atef] was number two. We obviously have been seeking [him] out. The incident… involved an air strike as opposed to action on the ground,” Rumsfeld said.
The secretary also said alleged Sept. 11 mastermind Osama bin Laden and Taliban Supreme Leader Mullah Mohammed Omar were probably still in Afghanistan, denying reports either of the two had possibly escaped to neighboring Pakistan.
Pentagon officials today said the Taliban now faces considerable pressure from opposition groups in the south now that it has lost control over much of the country’s northern territory.
“I think it’s fair to say that the Taliban have now lost control of over two-thirds of Afghanistan,” Rear Admiral John Stufflebeem told a Pentagon news briefing.
U.S. and Northern Alliance forces continued to battle remaining Taliban forces in the northern region surrounding the city of Kunduz. U.S. officials estimate nearly 3,000 Taliban soldiers remain in the area, but the Northern Alliance claim the number is closer to 20,000.
Taliban orders a retreat from Kandahar
The Taliban’s Omar today reportedly told his troops to abandon Kandahar within the next 24 hours and retreat to the mountains, the Pakistan-based Afghan Islamic Press reported.
The AIP quoted sources saying the decision was made after consultations between Omar and “close friends and army commanders.”
Omar said the Taliban would hand over the southern stronghold to two local tribal leaders to spare more civilian casualties from U.S. air strikes.
The two, Mullah Naqibullah and Haji Basher are former Mujahadeen commanders who had fought against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in the 1980s and are said not to be members of the Taliban. Bashar is reportedly allied with the Pashtun leader who took control of northeastern Jalalabad earlier this week.
At the Pentagon, Stufflebeem said he didn’t put much stock in the report.
“I don’t believe it,” he said. “I think that our forces who are there are still operating under the assumption that it is a hostile environment. I think the opposition groups are operating in the same way.”
Blueprints for weapons found in Kabul
Pentagon officials today confirmed reports that Special Forces operatives found plans for making nuclear weapons in an alleged al-Qaida hideout in Kabul.
The Times of London reported finding documents containing the formula for ricin, a lethal biological poison.
Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge said the information could have come from the Internet and did not mean that bin Laden possesses nuclear weapons.
“Much of that information could have been taken right off the Internet some years ago. So there is nothing unusual about that information,” Ridge told reporters yesterday.