FORT CAMPBELL, Ky. President Bush yesterday told 15,000 beret-wearing soldiers they had “a rendezvous with destiny,” but warned that quick victories in Afghanistan would be fewer as the Taliban dug in to fortified positions in the south.
Making a pre-Thanksgiving stop at the 164-square-mile Army installation, Mr. Bush dined on turkey and green beans with 150 soldiers from the 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault); the 5th Special Forces Group, a Green Beret unit; and the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment, or the “Nightstalkers.”
“The most difficult steps in this mission still lie ahead. Our enemies hide in sophisticated cave complexes located in some of the most mountainous and rugged territory,” Mr. Bush said. “These hide-outs are heavily fortified and defended by fanatics who will fight to the death. Unlike efforts to liberate a town or destroy Taliban equipment, success against these cells may come more slowly.
“But we’ll prevail. We’ll prevail with a combination of good information, decisive action and great military skill,” he said to whoops and shouts of “air assault” the 101st Airborne’s cheer.
The president, however, said the U.S.-led coalition has made great strides in the Afghanistan war, now in its eighth week.
“Today, 27 of 30 Afghanistan provinces are no longer under Taliban control. We’ve cut the Taliban and terrorist lines of communications. And they’re on the run,” he said.
Wearing a leather Screaming Eagles jacket, Mr. Bush stoked the camouflage-clad troops, calling out their motto at the beginning of his speech. At one point, as Mr. Bush repeated a familiar refrain that terrorists were “evil,” one gung-ho soldier shouted out, “Destroy ‘em.”
In his remarks, Mr. Bush referred to the 101st Airborne’s creation and connected it to the war on terrorism. On Aug. 16, 1942, Maj. Gen. William C. Lee said that while the new division had no history, it had “a rendezvous with destiny.”
“The 101st Airborne is living out its motto. Once again, you have a rendezvous with destiny,” the president said. “And so does our country; we’re freedom’s home and defender. And today, we’re the target of freedom’s enemies.”
Speaking outdoors in front of a giant “Airborne” banner, the president told the soldiers some of whom returned yesterday from a six-month stint in Kosovo that Americans appreciated their service.
“All Americans are especially grateful especially grateful for the sacrifice of our military families; the husbands and wives, and sons and daughters, the mothers and dads. Some of you have loved ones that are deployed, or will be deployed far from home in a war against terror and evil.
“And our nation and the world are counting on your loved ones. They’re making us secure and they are making us proud. Men and women of Fort Campbell, your country and your president are proud of you, as well,” Mr. Bush said as cheers thundered across the sprawling Army base 60 miles northwest of Nashville, Tenn.
The president lauded the Screaming Eagles of the 101st Airborne Division, some of whom he met when he visited Camp Bondsteel in Kosovo in July.
“I will always remember this as the day I ate turkey with the Screaming Eagles. More than 3,000 soldiers from this post have been deployed to Kosovo for six-month rotations. They kept supplies away from rebels in Macedonia, made the recent election in Kosovo possible.
“I’m glad to report that all of them from this base will be home by Thanksgiving,” he said.
As he did before, Mr. Bush pledged that U.S. soldiers “will have everything you need to win in the long battle that lies ahead. You’ll have every resource, every weapon, every possible tool to ensure full victory for the cause of freedom.”
Playing to the boisterous crowd of soldiers, Mr. Bush said America will take the battle to the terrorists.
“Make no mistake about it: Wars are not won on the home front alone. Wars are won by taking the fight to the enemy. America is not waiting for terrorists to try to strike us again. Wherever they hide, wherever they plot, we will strike the terrorists,” he said to cheers.
Officials at the military base would not comment on whether troops from the special operation groups were on the ground in Afghanistan. Mr. Bush added to the mystery when he thanked several units “and other essential groups that shall remain nameless.”
Mr. Bush looked ahead to the fall of the Taliban and Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda terrorist group.
“The Afghan people deserve a just and stable government. And we will work with the United Nations to help them build it. Our diplomats in the region, in Europe, in New York and in Washington are in communications with all parties.
“We’re urging them to move quickly toward a government that is broadly based, multiethnic, and protects the rights and dignity of all Afghan citizens, including women,” he said.
The president said despite quick victories in the war in Afghanistan, Americans should be prepared for the long haul.
“Afghanistan is just the beginning on the war against terror. There are other terrorists who threaten America and our friends, and there are other nations willing to sponsor them. We will not be secure as a nation until all of these threats are defeated. Across the world and across the years, we will fight these evil ones, and we will win,” he said.
But Americans, he said, are used to winning long fights.
“Great causes are not easy causes. It was a long way from Bunker Hill to Yorktown. It was a long way for the 101st from Normandy to final victory over fascism in Europe. When wronged, our great nation has always been patient and determined and relentless.
“And that’s the way we are today. We have defeated enemies of freedom before. And we will defeat them again,” he said to cheers and whoops.
The president ran well ahead of schedule all day, arriving 10 minutes early and returning to Washington a full hour early. He and first lady Laura Bush, who accompanied the president on the trip, then went to Camp David, where they were to spend the holiday weekend.