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The Washington Post November 2, 2001

U.S. Sets Stage for Offensive; Troops, Planes Focus On North Afghanistan

By Steven Mufson and William Branigin

The Pentagon and its allies moved yesterday to concentrate broad military power in northern Afghanistan and set the stage for a ground offensive by anti-Taliban rebels, committing new U.S. troops and aircraft and pledging continued heavy bombing of front-line Taliban forces.

A senior defense official said the Pentagon has ordered the deployment of a JSTARS surveillance aircraft capable of tracking enemy movements across hundreds of miles of battlefield, while Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said he wanted the number of U.S. Special Forces assisting the opposition Northern Alliance increased by three to four times "as soon as humanly possible."

Intensified U.S. bombing of Taliban positions north of Kabul -- including the use of a B-52 bomber for the first time on such positions -- has given the Northern Alliance hope that it can soon march on Kabul, the capital, senior alliance officials and commanders said.

"With effective, intense bombing of the front lines, it would be a matter of days to break through," Abdullah, the alliance's foreign affairs chief, told reporters in the village of Jabal Saraj in northern Afghanistan. He said this applies to "any front line" between the Taliban and the alliance. Abdullah said yesterday's airstrikes near alliance lines north of Kabul were "very effective" and that heavy airstrikes since Saturday had destroyed at least 15 Taliban tanks.

U.S. airstrikes resumed before dawn Friday. The roar of jets could be heard over the Shomali Plain starting just before 4 a.m. and they continued to fly into the morning. Reports of damage were not immediately available.

Abdurrab Rasul Sayyaf, a senior member of the alliance's leadership council, said an advance on Kabul could be launched before a renewed alliance assault on Mazar-e Sharif, a strategic northern city held by Taliban forces. "If you want to hit your enemy, you should hit him on the head," Sayyaf said.

Azerbaijan and Armenia, meanwhile, both offered the United States assistance in its war on terrorism, including overflight rights for U.S. military planes. Such rights would provide U.S. warplanes with a new corridor into Afghanistan from bases in Europe and Turkey. In addition, the Bush administration pressed Congress to lift sanctions on cooperation with Azerbaijan to permit use of an air base in Azerbaijan for operations over Afghanistan.

Turkey announced that it would dispatch 90 special forces troops to help train the Northern Alliance, making it the third NATO member to commit ground troops to the war. The move came days after Britain announced that it was sending all its aircraft carriers and 4,200 special forces troops to the region.

U.S. Marines lifted off the USS Peleliu yesterday in three helicopters on an undisclosed support mission, according to a media pool report from the amphibious assault ship in the Arabian Sea. The Pentagon has taken reporters to the Peleliu but imposed strict limits on what they can report and released no information about specific operations.

"In other American wars, enemy commanders have come to doubt the wisdom of taking on the strength and power of this nation and the resolve of her people," Rumsfeld said. "I expect that somewhere in a cave in Afghanistan there is a terrorist leader who is at this moment considering precisely the same thing."

Briefing reporters at the Pentagon, Rumsfeld said that the presence of U.S. Special Forces on the ground in a liaison role with the Northern Alliance has greatly enhanced the U.S. military's ability to designate targets and attack Taliban forces from the air. He said 80 percent of all sorties being flown are in support of opposition forces in the north.

Rumsfeld expressed frustration that more U.S. Special Forces are not already on the ground but said that on more than one occasion heavy Taliban ground fire kept troops from being deployed from helicopters.

"But we have a number of teams cocked and ready to go; it's just a matter of having the right kind of equipment to get them there in the landing zones in places where it's possible to get in and get out, and we expect that to happen -- I've expected it to happen every day, and I'm sure it will in the days immediately ahead," Rumsfeld said.

The use of B-52 bombers to drop cluster bombs on Taliban forces, Rumsfeld said, is "to try to kill them . . . to be perfectly blunt."

A senior defense official confirmed that a JSTARS surveillance aircraft -- the name stands for Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System -- and an experimental Global Hawk unmanned surveillance drone had been moved to the region and would soon be flying missions over Afghanistan.

The deployment of JSTARS signals that a major ground engagement is imminent, defense analysts said. "It basically gives you continuous surveillance of moving ground targets over a wide area," said John Pike, director of Globalsecurity.org, a defense consulting company.

On the northern plains surrounding Mazar-e Sharif, he said, "It would make it very difficult for the Taliban to organize counterattacks."

The Global Hawk, which has never been flown in combat, is a high-altitude drone with a wingspan longer than a Boeing 737. It can stay aloft for 36 hours and carry a load of sensitive battlefield sensors at an altitude of 65,000 feet. "With the cameras, we can identify targets out to 30 miles, and the radar is effective to over a hundred miles," a senior defense official said.

National security adviser Condoleezza Rice, meanwhile, said the United States "can't afford to have a pause" in the bombing campaign, as some Islamic governments have suggested, during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan that begins in less than two weeks.

"We think that the best thing that we can do for the world, for all of the allies in the coalition, whether they are Muslim or not, is to make certain that this war on terrorism succeeds. And that means we have to finish the mission," Rice told reporters.

In Afghanistan, Northern Alliance officials said that logistical problems and the failure of opposition political leaders to form an interim government to replace the Taliban would not deter the launching of an offensive.

The Pentagon delayed heavy bombing in support of the Northern Alliance for the first few weeks of the war, hoping that an interim government including not only the three ethnic minorities that comprise the alliance leadership but also ethnic Pashtuns in the south could be created first. With that political track flagging, the Pentagon has moved aggressively over the past week to step up its support for the alliance.

"Inshallah [God willing], you will see it soon," said Sayyaf, whose political party fields hundreds of fighters on a portion of the front north of Kabul. "I can't say exactly when, but it is near. When we go to Kabul, within a week the schedule for a transitional government will be made."

U.S. bombs rained down on Taliban targets in three villages near the front north of Kabul on Wednesday, according to Abdul Nasir, a senior official in the alliance's defense ministry. He said the targets were identified to the U.S. military by alliance officers.

At the abandoned village of Rabat, one of the alliance's southernmost positions near the main road to Kabul, Mohammad Mustafa, the commander of an artillery battalion, also applauded yesterday's airstrikes. He said he watched one Taliban tank and a "central base" being destroyed. "They are weakened, and their morale is declining," he said.

Mustafa said that on the front north of Kabul, Taliban fighters and their allies are manning three lines of defense, each of which has about 3,000 fighters. Other estimates put total Taliban strength on the front at 6,000 to 8,000 fighters.

Asked at a news conference whether the Northern Alliance is capable of undertaking an offensive, given its shortages of fuel, tanks, heavy artillery and other equipment, Abdullah said alliance fighters were used to battling against the odds.

"We do have certain logistical problems, but that does not disable us from launching an effective offensive against the Taliban," he said. "I would not say we have everything which is required. It is not possible to get whatever we need at this time, because of the weather and logistics." However, he said, "we have been trained to do the job with whatever we have."

Abdullah said there has been little activity in recent days on the front south of Mazar-e Sharif, but that U.S. airstrikes caused considerable damage to Taliban positions in the city of Kunduz. There, he said, a Taliban air base and an ammunition depot were hit. The attacks, combined with the defection of Taliban supporters north of Kunduz, forced Taliban commanders to order the evacuation of other ammunition stocks, he said.

With Azerbaijan and Armenia offering assistance in the war, the Bush administration pushed to have a House-Senate conference committee approve legislation authorizing the president to waive sanctions against Azerbaijan to permit immediate use of an air base there.

"There is some urgency to try to get that waiver authority," an administration official said, adding that the base would be used for resupply operations or as "backup capability" to bases in Uzbekistan or Pakistan.

The administration has been engaged in diplomacy with both Armenia and Azerbaijan, neighbors and longtime foes. On Tuesday, President Bush called President Heydar Aliyev of Azerbaijan and President Robert Kocharian of Armenia to discuss the war. In addition, Armenia's foreign minister was in Washington and a State Department envoy for negotiating an end to the two countries' dispute over Nagorno-Karabakh was in the region.

As it pushed these issues on Capitol Hill, the Bush administration also kicked off its new public diplomacy campaign yesterday by announcing a series of major meetings and speeches Bush would deliver over the next 10 days.

The flurry of activity, and the public announcements, are products of the new Coalition Information Centers -- or CIC as it has quickly been dubbed in the White House -- established this week in Washington and London to provide rapid and coordinated information on the U.S. and coalition anti-terrorism effort.

Concerned that they were losing the battle for international public opinion, especially in the Islamic world, senior aides to Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair decided last week to set up the offices. A third center, staffed by U.S. and British officials, is to open in Islamabad, Pakistan, to provide instant rebuttal to Taliban allegations that the bombings are causing massive collateral damage and civilian deaths in Afghanistan.

Branigin reported from Jabal Saraj. Staff writers Karen DeYoung, Vernon Loeb and Thomas E. Ricks contributed to this report.


Copyright 2001 The Washington Post