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International Herald Tribune November 27, 2001

Commitment of Marines Gives Key Role to Ground Troops

By Joseph Fitchett

By sending in the Marines, the Bush administration has broken the taboo against use of American ground forces in combat, apparently signaling a new phase in the Afghan war in which U.S. troops will take over a key role in the fighting. "It probably marks the start of a buildup of U.S. forces in theater from the current low hundreds of troops to thousands in the coming weeks as the campaign gets down to the business of liquidating the Taliban movement, hunting down the terrorists and destroying their hideouts," according to John Pike, a Washington-based analyst.

In a historical perspective, the deployment could also help dispel questions about whether the United States was politically prepared to see U.S. ground troops go into combat and incur the risk of battlefield casualties.

"A total win in Afghanistan is vital in setting the stage for future campaigns and putting everyone on notice about our determination to take military action where it's necessary against terrorism," a Pentagon aide said. Political support for ground action in Washington is strong despite the risk of U.S. casualties, he said, because the Bush administration has high approval ratings for its tough response to the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington on Sept. 11. "I think the American people understand we're in for a long, long struggle in order to rid the world of terrorism and that there might be loss of life," President George W. Bush said Monday. He said U.S. troops "understand the risk inherent with being in the military."

The last major firefight involving U.S. ground forces occurred in 1993 in Somalia, when an American unit was driven out of Mogadishu, the capital, after local guerrillas killed 18 servicemen.

Osama bin Laden, the terrorist leader who is the target of the current U.S. manhunt in Afghanistan, has frequently taunted the United States publicly about its defeat at the hands of Somalia's Muslim fighters. In Kosovo and other subsequent conflicts, Washington relied almost exclusively on its air power to wear down adversaries while sustaining close to zero U.S. casualties.

The commitment of U.S. ground troops follows a six-week Afghan offensive involving bombing, special forces operations and attacks by the Northern Alliance. Underlying this latest escalation is an evident U.S. desire to finish the job of liquidating the Taliban and uprooting the bin Laden organization.

The ground forces outside Kandahar -- elite troops that can operate as highly mobile special forces on search-and-destroy missions -- will be in a position to comb terrain where bin Laden leaders are thought to be hiding, choke off escape routes for defeated Taliban fighters and tighten the noose around Kandahar, the center of the fundamentalists' movement in Afghanistan.

U.S. officials declined to spell out the precise objectives of the forces ferried by helicopters into Afghanistan on Sunday night from aircraft carriers in the Arabian Sea. Marines, said to be the vanguard of a 2,000-man initial force, worked Monday to secure a landing strip near Kandahar that was close to the Taliban stronghold but out of mortar range.

The contingent of Marines, equipped for high mobility, "looks like a quick-reaction force that could be useful in the event that some small special unit finds itself in trouble," such as getting caught in a Taliban ambush, Mr. Pike said.

In tactical terms, the new airstrip will provide a forward operating area for helicopters used for raiding parties by U.S. special forces and Marines. They will be concentrating on Kandahar Province, which runs along the Afghan border with Pakistan.

The Taliban have entrenched themselves, along with bin Laden aides, in this frontier zone populated by Pashtun tribes that provided the bulk of the commanders and fighters in the fundamentalist movement. U.S. helicopters, including the mini-helicopters used by special operations teams, will now need only 15 or 20 minutes' flying time to reach most potential targets in this zone.

In this phase of U.S. operations, special forces and Marines will be needed "to crawl around on the ground and find people," according to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, a reference to U.S. determination to track down hundreds of individuals who have been prominent in the Taliban regime and bin Laden movement.

The initial U.S. contingent of 2,000 men, by itself, would appear too small to mount a final assault on the Taliban forces inside Kandahar. In any case, street fighting is deemed particularly dangerous by the Pentagon, which has not forgotten the punishment inflicted on U.S. special forces ambushed in the street warren of central Mogadishu.

Urban guerrilla fighting, involving house-to-house combat at short range, offers particular difficulties for U.S. forces. Communications can be blocked by walls. Cities, even relatively low-built ones such as Kandahar, offer limited scope for helicopter support and high-technology assets such as night vision and heat sensors to detect the presence of enemy fighters.

As a spearhead for anti-Taliban Pashtuns attacking Kandahar, however, the Marines "could make a key difference in adding accurate firepower to an assault by local forces and then helping to prevent a tribal-style bloodbath afterwards," a French defense official said.

Officially, Pentagon officials have said that they wanted U.S. forces to supervise the surrender of Taliban hard-liners in Kandahar, and Mr. Rumsfeld has made the point repeatedly that bin Laden agents must not be allowed to escape to Pakistan and set up terrorist cells elsewhere. Washington intends to put the Qaida agents on trial in special military courts.


Copyright 2001 The International Herald Tribune