- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 1, 2001

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said yesterday that the danger to U.S. forces in Afghanistan is growing as the Taliban gradually loses its grip on power.
U.S. bombing raids were carried out yesterday on caves and tunnels believed to be hiding places for Taliban forces and al Qaeda terrorists. U.S. warplanes also struck targets near the besieged city of Kandahar the last stronghold of the Taliban militia and its leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar.
As the U.S. military campaign entered its 55th day, Mr. Rumsfeld told reporters that Taliban and al Qaeda forces now control only a small portion of the country.
Military operations are applying "pressure" around Kandahar, and Mr. Rumsfeld said it is "unquestionably having an effect."
Mr. Rumsfeld would not say whether the 1,000 U.S. Marines now deployed in southern Afghanistan would take part in any attack on Kandahar. "We not only don't rule things out, we don't announce that we've ruled things out," he said.
However, Gen. Tommy Franks, commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, said Monday that the Marines, about 75 miles from Kandahar, will not be used as "a force to attack Kandahar."
"That simply is not the case. That's not why we put them there," he said.
Gen. Franks said the U.S. military would not conduct indiscriminate bombing raids on Kandahar that might cause "collateral damage." Instead, he wants opposition forces to take the city, as occurred in Mazar-e-Sharif, Kabul and Kunduz.
"We'll pursue Kandahar militarily the same way we have pursued the cities in the North, and you've seen the result of that," Gen. Franks said.
Mr. Rumsfeld also said the United States would not allow Mullah Omar to negotiate an amnesty or safe passage out of the country.
Mr. Rumsfeld sidestepped questions about the status of one of the leadership of al Qaeda Ahmed Omar Abdel Rahman who is reported to be in the hands of opposition Afghan forces.
But the defense secretary said none of the Taliban leaders or al Qaeda terrorists should be set free.
"We would do everything reasonable to see that we had access to those people, first to interrogate them and find out who they are, and second if they are people that we believe we want, to actually get physical custody over them," Mr. Rumsfeld said.
In southern Afghanistan, Marine helicopter gunships and armored vehicles conducted reconnaissance patrols near Kandahar yesterday but so far have met no enemy resistance, according to media pool reports.
Defense officials said the Marines' mission will be to "interdict" Taliban or al Qaeda forces. Interdiction is a military term that means to disrupt, delay and destroy enemy forces.
Meanwhile, southern tribal opposition forces fought Taliban troops near Kandahar's main airport, the Associated Press reported from Kabul. One tribal leader, Abdul Jabbar, said southern opposition fighters had captured 80 Taliban fighters and five tanks and other equipment.
Osama bin Laden, the al Qaeda leader said to be behind the September 11 terrorist attacks, is hiding in a secure location somewhere in Afghanistan and "is attempting to deal with his network in whatever way he does," Mr. Rumsfeld said. He added that Mullah Omar is "trying to save Kandahar."
"The Taliban can no longer freely move around the country," he said. "They're finding it increasingly difficult to manage their remaining forces. Ironically, however, as the size of the Taliban real estate diminishes, the danger to coalition forces may actually be increasing."
Mr. Rumsfeld said the war is not over and that U.S. troops may be captured or killed, as happened to CIA officer Johnny Micheal Spann, who was killed Sunday by Taliban prisoners in an uprising near Mazar-e-Sharif.
"Now the bulk of the country is not controlled by the Taliban, but there are still plenty of pockets of resistance, and there are plenty of Taliban people who 'defected' and may or may not stay defected," he said.
Additionally, some of the Taliban militia and their supporters have "melted into the cities and into the mountains" while others are still armed, he said.
Captured Taliban fighters also are dangerous and have shown a willingness to kill people in suicide grenade attacks.
Mr. Rumsfeld also said the dispatch of international peacekeeping forces might hinder the United States' efforts to track down al Qaeda terrorists.
"We do not want anything, including [peacekeeping forces], to happen in a way that would inhibit us from pursuing our goals of seeking out the al Qaeda and Taliban leaders and seeing that the country is not a haven for terrorists," he said.
U.S. defense and intelligence officials said the situation in Kandahar remained at a standoff between the remaining Taliban forces in the city and southern and northern opposition forces that have encircled it.
Mr. Rumsfeld said the situation near Kandahar is "untidy" but that he is not worried that differences among the opposition forces will hamper efforts to oust the Taliban forces from their last remaining stronghold. "I'd like to see the Taliban out of Kandahar," he said.
Mr. Rumsfeld said "thousands" of people are in custody at various locations around Afghanistan and that they are being checked to see whether they include terrorists linked to al Qaeda.
Marine Corps Gen. Peter Pace, deputy chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that on Thursday 110 U.S. strike aircraft carried out bombing raids, primarily on Kandahar and near Jalalabad.
Gen. Pace described the situation in and around Kandahar as fluid. U.S. warplanes are providing air support to opposition forces, he said, but the number of remaining Taliban troops is not known.
"There has not yet been a major ground offensive battle," Gen. Pace said. "There are, we know, negotiations going on between the opposition forces and the Taliban leadership for surrender. We do know for certain that this fight will continue until Kandahar is in fact a free city, as is the rest of Afghanistan, or the majority of Afghanistan right now."

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