The Pentagon said yesterday that a recent U.S. air strike had killed Taliban and al Qaeda leaders, but a Taliban spokesman said Mullah Mohammed Omar the militia’s leader was still alive after the raid.
Meanwhile, U.S. military forces in Afghanistan are stepping up attacks on Taliban and al Qaeda terrorist leaders now that most of the country is in the hands of opposition forces.
“The pressure is on that leadership, and we’re doing it in a multitude of ways,” said Rear Adm. John Stufflebeem, deputy director of operations for the Joint Staff.
The admiral spoke to reporters after an air strike late Monday that killed several midlevel Taliban and al Qaeda leaders who had gathered in a building south of Kandahar, the last stronghold of the Taliban militia.
In the attack, a U.S. Air Force B-1 bomber dropped about 10 precision-guided bombs on two facilities that intelligence sources indicated were “Taliban leadership locations,” Adm. Stufflebeem said.
“We were confident that it was Taliban leadership,” Adm. Stufflebeem said when asked if Taliban leader Mullah Omar was in one of the facilities. “I think we’re always going to be hopeful that the senior leadership will be in one of these locations once we get those kinds of reports that allow us targeting information.”
The U.S. Army, meanwhile, has set up a base inside northern Afghanistan to match the deployment of U.S. Marines in the south.
Defense officials said a small team of U.S. Army Rangers from the 10th Mountain Division have formed a quick-reaction force near Mazar-e-Sharif. The troops will be used to oppose any Taliban counterattacks, the officials said.
The Rangers will be deployed near the failed Taliban uprising that took place over the past three days and claimed the lives of several hundred Taliban soldiers and at least 40 Northern Alliance fighters, according to news agency reports from the region.
CIA officer Johnny “Mike” Spann was killed Sunday during the uprising, which began when captured Taliban forces revolted.
More Marines arrived in southern Afghanistan yesterday by helicopters from ships in the Indian Ocean. The number of Marines now based near Kandahar is between 750 and 800, defense officials said.
Adm. Stufflebeem said military operations are now focused on applying pressure on the leadership. “If we break the leadership of the Taliban and break the leadership of al Qaeda, there is reduced emphasis or reduced motivation for troops to stay loyal to the cause and continue to fight,” he said.
“There will always be pockets who are going to fight to the death in any case,” he said. “But getting the key leadership and breaking the chain of command is going to render much of that ineffective.”
Adm. Stufflebeem said support for the Taliban militia and al Qaeda around most of Afghanistan has diminished. “With much of that now gone, and for much of the leadership in hiding and just trying to survive, the pressure is now being applied to shrink down the areas of where they can go to be found, and then they make the decision if they’re going to surrender or fight to the death,” he said.
A senior defense official said of the Monday night raid near Kandahar: “We know we got a lot of people who were in there. We just don’t know who.”
Adm. Stufflebeem said Taliban and al Qaeda leaders are continuing to communicate with their forces. “They’re using radios,” he said. “They’re trying to meet physically together. And in some cases they are severed from communicating by any means whatsoever.”
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said on Tuesday that the leadership compound targeted in the bombing raid included leaders of the Taliban, the al Qaeda group headed by Osama bin Laden and a Saudi Arabian humanitarian group known as Wafa that U.S. officials believe is a front for terrorist operations.
“It was clearly a leadership area,” Mr. Rumsfeld told reporters late Monday. “Whoever was there is going to wish they weren’t.”
The Pentagon released video footage showing of the bombing raids.
U.S. officials said several hundred members of al Qaeda were killed in military operations that began Oct. 7. Seven of the terrorists were considered al Qaeda leaders, said officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
The most senior al Qaeda leader to have been killed is Mohammed Atef, a top aide to bin Laden.
Other terrorist leaders who have been killed include Mohammed Salah and Tariq Anwar. The two men are senior members of the terrorist group Egyptian Islamic Jihad, a subgroup of al Qaeda, said officials who spoke to Associated Press.
In Kabul, Mullah Omar urged Taliban fighters in a radio message to fight to the death against U.S. forces in Afghanistan. “Stick to your positions and fight to the death,” a Taliban spokesman quoted Mullah Omar as saying.
According to news reports from Afghanistan, some of the Taliban prisoners found dead inside the fortress had their hands tied.
A Northern Alliance fighter identified only as Shabudin said alliance fighters had been tying the hands of fighters who were believed to be Arabs when some of the prisoners grabbed guns and began firing.
In Landstuhl, Germany, a U.S. soldier wounded by an errant U.S. bomb was in serious condition and four other soldiers were in good condition at a U.S. military hospital.
The soldiers had been wounded by a U.S. air strike that had been targeted against the uprising Taliban troops near Mazar-e-Sharif.
Also yesterday, the U.S. military said that bundles of humanitarian relief supplies, including wheat and blankets, dropped over Afghanistan had hit a house, killing a woman and child.
This first known mishap involving air drops of food and other supplies to refugees inside Afghanistan happened Tuesday about 120 miles north of Mazar-e-Sharif, near the border with Uzbekistan.
“The U.S. deeply regrets any unnecessary loss of life,” said a statement from the U.S. Central Command. “Great time and care goes into the selection of sites selected for the delivery of humanitarian assistance.”