Unseen, US forces on the move

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Unseen, US forces on the move

Elite teams pursue stealth missions

By David Filipov, Globe Staff, and Bryan Bender Globe Correspondent, 11/4/2001

ARTKAMAR, Afghanistan - They are here, somewhere.

In the barren, windswept highlands of northern Afghanistan, US troops are on the ground, in harm's way, operating in secrecy, often side by side with units of the loose anti-Taliban coalition known as the Northern Alliance.

The Americans, elite teams of commandos from special operations forces, have taken fire and suffered injuries. They have traveled by helicopter and by donkey. They have already seen missions foiled by wind, rain, and Taliban fire. And just getting them into Afghanistan has been a struggle.

Their mission is to help supply rebel units of the Northern Alliance with fuel and ammunition, and also to train the ragtag alliance forces into something resembling an army that can take down the larger, better-armed Taliban militia.

Americans on the ground are also helping direct attacks by warplanes in an effort to make the US bombing campaign against Taliban targets in northern Afghanistan more effective. No doubt, the commandos will try to hunt down and capture or kill suspected terrorist Osama bin Laden and members of his Al Qaeda network.

But above all, the American troops' mission is to avoid detection. No one who has laid eyes on them is ready to talk about it.

Local residents, opposition soldiers, and journalists have looked all over for them. But playing the game of Where's Commando is no easy task. If they are here in northern Afghanistan, then the American soldiers are keeping a very low profile.

''We would love to fight alongside American troops,'' said Daud, a one-named commander of alliance irregulars at a front-line position in Zartkamar, several hundred yards from a large Taliban garrison on Mount Kala-Kata. ''But we haven't seen them here.''

''There are Americans on the ground, but you can't find them,'' said Mahmur Hassan, a senior alliance official who commands 2,500 rebel troops on the front near Dashti-Qala. ''Everywhere the US bombs, ground troops communicate with the pilot.''

Hassan added: ''Maybe some American infantry will be based on the outskirts of Dashti-Qala,'' Hassan said, as alliance howitzers fired on Taliban positions on Mount Kala-Kata. ''Maybe I know about it but I cannot say any location.''

Pentagon officials last week publicly acknowledged for the first time that special operations forces are on the ground in the north in ''modest'' numbers - several dozen, officials said - operating with Northern Alliance units.

Pentagon officials said about 20 of them are assisting with resupply - overseeing air drops of ammunition - acting as communications liaisons, identifying and pointing lasers at targets to guide the US airstrikes and training the opposition forces in small unit tactics.

These troops are supplied and supported from elements of the 10th Mountain Division, which is based at Fort Drum, N.Y., now operating out of Uzbekistan. They include helicopter combat search-and-rescue and infiltration-and-extraction teams.

Although the Pentagon would like to triple or quadruple the number of US ground troops, the tough part, so far, has been getting them into the country. Defense officials said last week that poor weather - freezing rain or blustery sandstorms - is mostly to blame for preventing additional troops from landing from helicopters. But the troops have also been thwarted by Taliban gunfire.

The crash of a US helicopter in Afghanistan Friday night illustrated the risks and challenges of sending American troops into the combat zone. The special forces helicopter was trying to rescue a sick soldier, but crashed in severe weather in an undisclosed location. Another helicopter rescued the four crew members, who were injured but were expected to recover.

Although the special forces have been working mostly in the northern part of the country, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and other Pentagon officials said last week they hoped to increase operations with smaller opposition groups in the south, where the Taliban regime enjoys greater control.

The role of the special forces is varied. They total about 45,000, including the Army's Green Berets and Delta Force, Navy SEALS, and Air Force special forces that operate the helicopters and help identify bombing targets on the ground.

The Green Berets are the most likely candidates for ground operations in Afghanistan because one of their primary missions is to train and organize small and often ill-equipped forces. The Army's Delta Force is more tailored for what are called ''direct action'' missions - the kind of commando raids conducted two weeks ago on Taliban centers in Kandahar.

A larger US ground force could be introduced later, but past wars in Afghanistan - like the former Soviet Union's humbling failure after 10 years of fighting - have shown the high cost and risk of a conventional large-scale ground invasion.

Said a special operations veteran and instructor, ''The smaller the number of people, the more likely you will be able to survive and move about without being detected.''

The veil of secrecy has been pulled so tightly that US Embassy officials in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, still refuse to talk about the troops in that neighboring country, and the Uzbek government refuses to acknowledge their presence.

Another problem for US troops is knowing whom to trust. Afghan front lines are notoriously porous. Individual fighters, and sometimes entire fighting forces, frequently switch sides, often without raising suspicion among their new allies.

It is unclear how many US operatives can speak Pashto or Dari and therefore facilitate communication with alliance units on the ground.

And then there is bin Laden himself, who two weeks ago offered a $5 million bounty for every American male in Afghanistan. Protecting the troops has become a major concern.

Filipov reported from Afghanistan and Bender from Washington.

This story ran on page A1 of the Boston Globe on 11/4/2001. Copyright 2001 Globe Newspaper Company.


-- Martin Thompson (mthom1927@aol.com), November 04, 2001

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