- The Washington Times - Friday, September 28, 2001

The U.S. military has begun discreetly helping the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan, while the Bush administration is nearing a decision to arm the opposition force in its stepped-up war against the Taliban regime, senior officials say.
Administration officials said the assistance to the Northern Alliance has come in the form of advice and a discussion of the group's needs on the ground as it conducts an offensive in northern Afghanistan. U.S. special-operations troops are now in the region awaiting orders to strike suspected terrorist strongholds.
A debate is raging inside the administration on whether to arm the alliance.
Proponents argue that aiding the ill-equipped, though ferocious, opposition would put added pressure on the Taliban to offer up Osama bin Laden, the chief suspect in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. The U.S. arms transfers could also result in toppling the Taliban and putting an end to a regime that harbors bin Laden's al Qaeda terrorist network.
"It's a case of we'd be foolish not to consider the Northern Alliance as the major factor they really are," said a senior administration official who asked not to be identified. The official said using the alliance as a ready-made army would help dispel Arab concerns of an "anti-Muslim" campaign. "If they could get rid of the Taliban, it would look a lot better," the official said.
Army special-operations troops began deploying to the Central Asian region shortly after President Bush declared war on international terrorism and said that he wants bin Laden "dead or alive." Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, both on Afghanistan's norther border, have granted a U.S. request to let commandos launch strikes from the former Soviet republics. The two countries border areas of Afghanistan controlled by the Northern Alliance.
The administration official said Pentagon planners want to aid the Northern Alliance, but that top officials are slow in making a final decision. A major concern is Pakistan, which has become a major U.S. ally in the war on terrorism. But Pakistan a predominantly Muslim state may cease to provide assistance if the United States overtly helps the alliance, a movement opposed by Islamabad.
Top administration officials have made no secret of the fact that they want to form some type of partnership with the Taliban's main internal enemy. The alliance is composed of different factions, and commands a force of about 30,000 fighters. It controls under 10 percent of the country. Mr. Bush has equated terrorists and the states that sponsor them as being just as guilty of crimes a comparison that signals the administration wants the Taliban to fall if it does not stop backing terrorists such as bin Laden.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld has said the alliance could "help a lot" in the U.S. goal to kill or capture those responsible for the terrorist attacks.
State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said, "I would just say that we are in regular contact with the whole variety with the whole gamut of Afghan factions, including the Northern Alliance."
But a Washington representative of one alliance faction said yesterday the decision-making process is taking too long. He said the alliance is now waging a fierce battle to capture the city of Mazar-e-Sharif.
Haron Amin said the opposition urgently needs military aid now, especially in the form of air cover as Taliban fighter-bombers strike at guerrilla troops.
"We have made contact" with U.S. troops in the region, Mr. Amin said. He declined further comment.
Administration officials also said in interviews that:
The chances of large-scale air strikes on Afghanistan are diminishing as the Pentagon refines its war-planning strategy. Strike aircraft sent to the region will more likely be used to go after specific terrorist targets or support a specific special-operations mission.
Probably no more than 40 American commandos will infiltrate Afghanistan at any given time, in an effort to make each strike as simple and secret as possible. Gen. Henry H. Shelton, who retires Sunday after serving four years as the Joint Chiefs chairman, said yesterday that his troops will "hunt down and destroy" terrorists.
There are unconfirmed intelligence reports that bin Laden's organization obtained "uranium capsules" from rogue Russian suppliers. The weapon could be used to spread deadly radioactive material.
Officials say privately that the first U.S. military action is weeks away, unless a chance to capture bin Laden suddenly materializes.
Mr. Rumsfeld, who has stressed operational security for his troops moving into the region, yesterday declined to discuss a timetable.
"We're not leaping into this. We're moving into it in a measured way," he told reporters at the Pentagon.
The Pentagon this week is also playing down expectations for a large military strike, or, for that matter, an overriding military role in Mr. Bush's war against terrorism.
"The military piece is not the primary piece," a senior Pentagon official said.
Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz said Wednesday that by using diplomacy and not force the United States may be able to persuade states that have been harboring terrorists to cease their sponsorship activities.
He also indicated that the United States is now engaged in an intense effort to collect intelligence on Afghanistan and bin Laden's network before ordering strikes.

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