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Rangers Hit Taliban in Ground Combat; Related Helicopter Crash Kills Two GIs
By Bradley Graham and Thomas E. Ricks, Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, October 20, 2001; Page A01
More than 100 Army Rangers and other Special Forces swept into southern Afghanistan yesterday and engaged in a combat operation near the Taliban stronghold of Kandahar, U.S. officials said, the first known action involving American ground troops in the 13-day-old war.
The lightning raid, accomplished in several hours, was executed with an armada of helicopters that ferried the U.S. troops into Afghanistan and out under cover of darkness. Two U.S. military personnel were killed in a helicopter accident in Pakistan related to the operation, the Pentagon said. They were not part of the force that went into Afghanistan, a U.S. official said, but belonged to an "on-call assistance force."
President Bush said the forces were "encircling the terrorists so we can bring them to justice" and that the two soldiers in the helicopter accident "will not have died in vain."
Pentagon officials, speaking anonymously, provided only a few bare details last night about the raid, declining to specify the target, the identity of the American units involved or the extent of resistance from Taliban forces.
The substantial size of the airborne operation appeared intended as much to make a psychological and political point as to achieve some concrete military gain in an area that has been the object of withering bomb attacks since early in the U.S. air war.
By staging a sizable raid near the city that is the Taliban's spiritual birthplace, American authorities were clearly signaling Afghan tribal leaders who have supported the Taliban the extent of their ability to operate at will inside Afghanistan. The operation also served to underscore the Bush administration's determination to take the war to a new level of intensity in pursuing the Taliban and the al Qaeda terrorist network of Osama bin Laden.
The attack followed by a day the reported arrival of the first U.S. Special Operations forces in Taliban-controlled territory in southern Afghanistan. While defense officials cautioned against expecting a surge of American troops into the country, yesterday's action heralded a new phase of the war, one likely to expose U.S. forces to greater risk of casualties.
In recent days, senior administration officials have made it increasingly clear that airstrikes alone would not root out the Taliban and al Qaeda leadership. That job, they have said, will have to be accomplished in a series of arduous ground actions, including reconnaissance missions, small commando raids and higher-profile helicopter assaults.
Bush, who was in Shanghai for meetings with world leaders in conjunction with this weekend's gathering of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum, received an hour-long briefing on the ground action via a secure video link starting at 8 p.m. Eastern time.
"My heart goes out to the family and friends of those who lost their life," Bush said a few hours later. "It is hard to express my gratitude and proper words for people that are willing to sacrifice for freedom, and the nation feels the same gratitude. And I want to assure the loved ones that the soldiers died in a cause that is just and right and that we will prevail."
Yesterday's ground attack took place early Saturday morning in Afghanistan and followed a Friday of extensive bombing. U.S. warplanes did not pause for the Muslim sabbath, in contrast to a week ago, when U.S. commanders eased airstrikes for a day because of Muslim religious observances. But Pentagon officials had made no commitment to honor every Friday that way. And indeed yesterday, with the onset of U.S. ground operations, the air campaign appeared calibrated to maintain maximum pressure on the Taliban and the al Qaeda network.
A senior defense official reported some reduction in planned strike missions compared with a sharp increase earlier in the week. But he said roughly the same number of U.S. attack aircraft had been sent aloft yesterday as in recent days -- about 80 or 90 -- with the expectation some would go after unplanned targets such as troop convoys that emerged. "Today was nothing like last Friday," said Rear Adm. Craig Quigley, a Pentagon spokesman.
Many details about the insertion of the first ground troops into southern Afghanistan were wrapped yesterday in a tight cover of secrecy, and defense officials said that was likely to remain the case.
In Islamabad, a Pakistan military official said that American officials had informed his government that U.S. Special Operations forces would be conducting "hit-and-run" actions in Taliban-ruled areas of Afghanistan in an effort to flush out Taliban and terrorist leaders, the Associated Press reported.
In Washington, the Pentagon declined to provide any details about the Special Operations forces. Such reluctance to discuss specifics was attributed to safety concerns as well as to a desire to preserve the deception and surprise critical to such operations.
"If or when they are on the ground, being there would make them the most vulnerable individuals engaged in this campaign," Rear Adm. John Stufflebeem, deputy director of operations on the Joint Staff, said at an afternoon Pentagon news conference.
Asked what Special Operations forces might bring to the particular problem of fighting terrorists in Afghanistan, Stufflebeem mentioned the commandos' expertise in three areas: training opposition forces; developing intelligence information; and conducting small-unit, quick-strike raids.
In addition to the ground action in southern Afghanistan, there were signs that small numbers of American troops had already been operating in northern Afghanistan. Two senior Afghan opposition commanders, whose forces are closing in on the key northern city of Mazar-e Sharif, said yesterday that they have been receiving assistance from U.S. military personnel.
In an interview with reporters by satellite telephone from his base in Dara-i Suf, about 55 miles southeast of Mazar-e Sharif, Gen. Abdurrashid Dostum said "eight or nine" U.S. military officials had been with him for the past week as his fighters have battled Taliban forces near the city. But he said the Americans had come to discuss food aid for the Dara-i Suf area, a pocket controlled by the rebel Northern Alliance that has major food shortages caused by drought.
Another Northern Alliance commander near Mazar-e Sharif, Attah Mohammad, told Reuters by satellite telephone that eight Americans had arrived by helicopter to meet with Dostum, apparently on an intelligence or reconnaissance mission.
Discussing U.S. military assistance to anti-Taliban forces, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld confirmed yesterday that the United States is supplying the rebel Northern Alliance with money and ammunition. He also said that American forces were coordinating with the northern rebels better than they were with opposition forces in the south.
"There is good coordination from the air with the ground in some places, particularly in the north," Rumsfeld told reporters who flew with him to Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri to visit with B-2 bomber crews who had flown some of the air war's first missions. "There is not that kind of coordination as of yet in the south."
As U.S. warplanes completed their 13th straight day of strikes, the list of targets suggested an air campaign still focused largely on pulverizing Taliban military facilities, whether they were occupied or not. Providing a rundown of Thursday's action, Stufflebeem spoke of 18 planned "target areas" that included military training facilities, artillery camps, ammunition and vehicle storage depots and troop deployment sites. He also mentioned "dispersed armor and radar" around some antiaircraft batteries, and said that some airfields and air defenses -- the focus of the first week of attacks -- were still being hit.
He acknowledged that U.S. military planners did not know whether many of the facilities being targeted were occupied by Taliban or al Qaeda forces. But he indicated this was of little significance, saying that the aim of the strikes was to make the facilities "unavailable" during the coming winter months. Another senior military officer explained that the bombing was intended more to deny refuge to Taliban troops than to kill them. "Numbers of people isn't what we're aiming for, it's infrastructure," the officer said.
Rumsfeld took issue with suggestions that U.S. warplanes were not doing enough to support Northern Alliance forces trying to take Mazar-e Sharif. While alliance forces had been reported to be close to capturing it earlier in the week and severing Taliban supply lines to northern units, the town has remained in Taliban control.
Rumsfeld called reports of inadequate U.S. military assistance "confused" and "anecdotal." Stufflebeem, when asked about the situation in Mazar-e Sharif, described "an ebb and a flow from one day to the next" between the Taliban and the rebels that has been going on for a number of years "and probably will continue to for some time."
Stufflebeem indicated that U.S. targeting was following a pattern and timetable that had more to do with Washington's specific objectives than with those of the rebels or any other group. "We're working on our campaign on our time line for our specific goals and objectives," he said. "We are not concerned at this point, necessarily, how that may appear to those in a particular spot on the ground."
As for what U.S. officials consider will constitute victory, Rumsfeld said the "military role will be over there when the Taliban and the al Qaeda are gone. That's what this is about." At the same time, he cautioned that the fighting in Afghanistan could last a while."It's a difficult set of problems that we're dealing with," he said. "It's not going to be fast. It's going to take time."
In a later session with reporters at Whiteman, Rumsfeld was asked whether the war against terrorism would have to be fought in countries outside Afghanistan in order to be successful."There's no doubt in my mind," he replied.
Staff writers Mike Allen, traveling with Bush, and Vernon Loeb, traveling with Rumsfeld, contributed to this report.
© 2001 The Washington Post Company
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