Tuesday, November 27, 2001

The seizure of an airstrip south of Kandahar gives U.S. troops their first fixed base inside Afghanistan from which to attack defenders of the last Taliban stronghold and cut off those trying to escape to the hills or other countries.
Since the air war began Oct. 7, American special-operations forces (SOF) have been forced to travel three hours or more from the carrier USS Kitty Hawk in the Arabian Sea to southern Afghanistan. Now, they have a Marine Corps-guarded, forward operating base from which to raid their two main enemies: the Taliban militia and fighters in Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda terror network.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said Army Gen. Tommy Franks, the U.S. war commander, wants the new base for troops to interdict (a military term for destroy) the enemy traveling on roads in and out of Kandahar, the last remaining Taliban-al Qaeda fortress.
The defense secretary suggested that the base, once the personal airport of Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar, will now be home to the American commandos trying to find and kill him.
“We’ve had special-operations capabilities in that part of the country for some time,” Mr. Rumsfeld said at the Pentagon. “One of the advantages that accrues to us by having capability there is that the highways that connect the north and south and the east-west can be interdicted from those locations. And it was decided that it would be helpful to have a base there from which a variety of things could be done, rather than simply using people, in and out, of special- operations nature.”
About 500 helicopter-borne U.S. Marines captured the defenseless airfield on Sunday. Eventually, about 1,000 Marines, armed with helicopter gunships and Harrier strike jets, will occupy the desert facility.
American commandos, including the anti-terrorist Delta Force, have been conducting sustained combat missions in southern Afghanistan for three weeks. They have been ferried in for specific missions or stayed several days, moving from makeshift camps to the point of attack.
Today, the tactics have changed. The U.S. commandos and Marines enjoy a secure base less than 15 miles from Kandahar, site of the last battle for total control of Afghanistan by anti-Taliban opposition tribes.
“The Marines have landed and we now own a piece of Afghanistan,” said Brig. Gen. James Mattis, commander of the special task force now being assembled at the airstrip.
Mr. Rumsfeld strongly suggested yesterday that the Marines’ role in southern Afghanistan will be limited mostly to maintaining the new base and supporting the ongoing interdiction mission.
Asked if they will join in the hunt for Taliban leaders and bin Laden, the defense secretary said, “The Marines are in to do what I’ve said, and that is to establish a forward operating base. And that is their purpose. It is not their purpose to do the other things that have been suggested.”
In an operation dubbed “Swift Freedom,” Gen. Mattis is commanding troops from two units: the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) on the amphibious assault ship USS Peleliu and based at Camp Pendleton, Calif.; and the 26th MEU on the USS Bataan, and based at Camp Lejeune, N.C.
The two MEUs contain more than 4,000 troops at sea, including infantry, aviators and support personnel.
Each MEU is a light-infantry assault force, complete with Cobra attack helicopters, Harrier jets, M-1A1 main battle tanks, light armored vehicles and humvee multipurpose vehicles.
“In short order, you’ll have a thousand-plus Marines in the back yard of the Taliban within two days,” said Col. Peter Miller, task force chief of staff, according to an Associated Press report from the Peleliu. “And on top of that, we’re going to start bringing in equipment.”
As the nation’s “911 force,” Marines train in a variety of tactics, including special-operations hit-and-run raids, and the type of urban warfare likely to erupt inside Kandahar as Mullah Omar’s troops fight to the death.
It is not clear, however, if Mr. Rumsfeld plans to introduce sufficient ground troops to take part in such risky and possibly bloody warfare. As in the north with the fall of Kabul and other cities, the Pentagon may leave city fighting to opposition forces in the south.
To date, the Pentagon exclusively has used air strikes and attacks by SOF soldiers to carry out President Bush’s goals of ousting the Taliban and killing off al Qaeda fighters, who are comprised of hard-core Arab and other non-Afghan fighters.

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