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The Associated Press November 27, 2001

Administration admits dangerous new situation in Afghanistan fighting


The fighting in Afghanistan has entered a messy, more deadly phase that poses new dangers for both U.S. troops and the Bush administration's overall mission. Several elements intensify the risks: Deployment of 1,000 Marines more than doubles the number of U.S. troops on the ground, which raises the likelihood of combat casualties. In addition, those forces face the task of wiping out the last pockets of the hardest-core Taliban and al-Qaida fighters, believed willing to fight to the death. Terror suspect No. 1 Osama bin Laden is among them. "This is a dangerous period of time," President Bush said. "We're now hunting down the people who are responsible for bombing America."

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld gave a vivid taste of those dangers Monday. He said American troops face fighters "willing to have hand grenades wrapped around themselves and blow themselves up, so they can kill a half-dozen other people in close proximity. ... The thought that they'll surrender ... is not likely."

During the war's first seven weeks, the United States mostly bombed from aircraft in support of northern alliance fighters who swept the Taliban from all territory the sternly Islamic militia held except for a few pockets. A few Americans advised the rebels, and a few hundred special operations forces were put on the ground to guide bombers to targets and later to blockade roads and search for bin Laden.

Although there have been injuries and accidental deaths outside Afghanistan, no American military commandos have died so far while fighting alongside anti-Taliban forces. But in the last few days, the stepped-up pace of the war also has stepped up the dangers.

Over the weekend, al-Qaida troops taken prisoner during the siege of Kunduz rioted inside the fortress where they were being held by the northern alliance. During the fighting, five American soldiers were hit by a misguided bomb as they called in air attacks. The fate of an American CIA operative caught inside the city remains unclear.

In southern Afghanistan, Marines sent to establish a forward operating base at an airfield near the Taliban base of Kandahar immediately participated in an attack on an armored column by Navy F-14 Tomcat jet fighters. Marine Cobra helicopters were in the area and ready to fire if needed, said Maj. Brad Lowell, a spokesman for the U.S. Central Command. The Marines did not fire, but the jets destroyed several vehicles.

The Marines will help maintain pressure on Taliban leaders inside Kandahar, Rumsfeld said, noting the airfield is in a strategic location where the Marines can cut off escape routes for fleeing Taliban and al-Qaida leaders.

The Marines are trained to conduct both special operations and ground combat missions, including search and recovery, reconnaissance, urban fighting and sniper operations. Some already have seen action: Last month, some were shot at during a refueling stop at a Pakistani air base while trying to recover a downed Army Black Hawk helicopter along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.

Marines are often some of the first to go in to the hottest spots in wartime. In Somalia in 1993, two Marines were killed after they landed to begin humanitarian relief operations. In the Persian Gulf War in 1991, Marines broke through Iraqi defense lines and moved into occupied Kuwait. Twenty-four died in that war.

Now in Afghanistan, the Marines will face hard-core Taliban and foreign fighters holed up in Kandahar and elsewhere. "These are people who've made the decision to fight to the end," said retired Rear Adm. Stephen Baker, an analyst at the Center for Defense Information in Washington. "For that reason, they are extremely dangerous."

Even with more forces on the ground, however, the United States still will depend on the northern alliance to do most of the heavy fighting on the ground, including taking prisoners and looking cave-to-cave for bin Laden. That's preferable, Rumsfeld said, with American troops then coming in to interrogate those suspected of ties to bin Laden.

John Pike, a Washington defense analyst, sees dangers to having a proxy force do the fighting. Any missteps by the northern alliance can leave American troops vulnerable, he said.

Rumsfeld said the bin Laden fighters held in the northern fortress managed to rebel over the weekend by using weapons smuggled in beneath their robes. "Any time prisoners are apparently not searched completely ... or not guarded in a way that they end up with some weapons in their hand and can stage a revolt, ... greater care needs to be taken by the people in charge," Rumsfeld said.

The fight at the fortress continued Monday as hundreds of anti-Taliban fighters - and some U.S. soldiers - rushed into the fortress to try to kill the remaining forces. In the south at the same time, the Marines' helicopter gunships were flying support for the Navy's attacking Tomcats. In Washington, the president warned: "America must be prepared for loss of life."

Copyright 2001 The Associated Press