- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 22, 2001

U.S. commanders have given special-operations troops more latitude to attack al Qaeda terrorists trying to flee Afghanistan's Tora Bora region for the Pakistani border.
The change came after The Washington Times, in yesterday's editions, quoted a senior military official as saying American commandos hunting al Qaeda troops had to get approval from U.S. Central Command in Tampa, Fla., before attacking in some circumstances.
A U.S. military combatant in Afghanistan said yesterday that special-operations forces no longer are subject to the strict rules of engagement that hamstrung their efforts.
"The rules have now been changed, enabling them to carry out their job of attacking the al Qaeda," the source said, adding: "If they see someone trying to get out of Afghanistan and are certain they are al Qaeda, they can destroy those people without approval. [Central Command] had never said that before."
After spotting enemy fighters during night surveillance missions, U.S. covert warriors previously had to describe what they saw to Tampa before receiving permission to fire, the senior military official said earlier this week. The battlefield red tape allowed al Qaeda terrorists to escape into Pakistan, the source said.
A spokesman for Gen. Tommy Franks, who heads Central Command, declined to comment for yesterday's report in The Times, saying the command does not publicly discuss specific rules of engagement.
At the Pentagon yesterday, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld responded to The Times' article at a news conference.
Mr. Rumsfeld, who often has talked of the need to eliminate the al Qaeda terrorists now so that they do not surface in another country and plan new operations, defended the rules of engagement as "leaning forward, not back."
Said Mr. Rumsfeld: "There's an article that appears in today's paper that quotes a military official speaking about the issue of rules of engagement . Let me say that the rules of engagement we have issued are aggressive, they're appropriate, and they have our forces leaning forward, not back. Gen. Franks and his team at Central Command are doing a fine job. The soldiers understand the rules.
"They are checked periodically to see that they understand the rules. We don't discuss precise aspects of rules of engagement, but I can say that there are areas where they are permitted to assume that anyone in there is an enemy and may be dealt with. There are other areas where it requires reasonable identification, which is certainly understandable, and a belief that they are an enemy, to engage them.
"Any suggestion that at any level of the command structure, from the secretary of defense down to the soldiers, that anyone should be leaning back would be inaccurate by a wide margin. They are instructed to understand the rules of engagement, to follow them. And the rules of engagement are leaning forward, and that is well understood," Mr. Rumsfeld said.
For the past several weeks, American and British special-operations troops have been fighting a nighttime war in the White Mountains around Tora Bora in northeastern Afghanistan. They ride in on helicopters at night and go on patrols, using stealth and sophisticated night-vision equipment to find escaping al Qaeda fighters.
Two weeks ago, anti-Taliban Afghans routed most of the al Qaeda forces from the caves of Tora Bora, but failed to find their leader, Osama bin Laden, who masterminded the September 11 attacks on New York and Washington.
Since then, those al Qaeda troops who escaped U.S. bombing and capture have moved at night to try to make the 30-mile journey to Pakistan. Pakistan's forces have captured hundreds of al Qaeda troops along the border.
Mr. Rumsfeld said yesterday that U.S. commandos had engaged in "dust-ups" with al Qaeda fighters in Tora Bora.
Military sources say Gen. Franks has placed strict rules of engagement on air strikes and ground action to ensure the United States does not inadvertently kill civilians and enrage the Muslim world. The general wants to ensure that people identified at a distance and at night as being part of the al Qaeda network are not being mistaken for Afghan refugees making their way back inside Afghanistan from Pakistan.
Bin Laden's Muslim fundamentalist followers have portrayed the campaign in Afghanistan as a war by the West against Islam. President Bush has said, however, that the war is being waged against terrorists, not Muslims.
Gen. Franks, a four-star Army artillery officer who fought in the 1991 Persian Gulf war, has been criticized within Air Force circles as well.
Some Air Force sources say Gen. Franks was too cautious during the height of the air campaign in October and November, nixing targets that contained concentrations of Taliban and al Qaeda forces. Gen. Franks' supporters defend him by saying he was worried about civilian, or collateral, casualties.
The senior military source told The Times of an incident earlier this week when Army special-operations troops had to reposition twice while tracking 22 al Qaeda soldiers as they waited for U.S. Central Command in Tampa to approve an attack. The commandos eventually received permission and launched their raid.

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