The commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan made a rare public appearance at the Pentagon yesterday and challenged critics who said the war is not going well.
Army Gen. Tommy Franks, commander in chief of the U.S. Central Command, also said the fall of the key town of Mazar-e-Sharif to the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance rebels would boost resupply efforts inside the country.
Answering reporters’ questions after receiving a strong endorsement from Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, Gen. Franks said the bombing campaign to destroy Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda terrorist network and to oust the ruling Taliban militia is making progress.
Asked if he thinks his war plan is too timid, Gen. Franks said: “Absolutely not.”
“The campaign plan which we have initiated … is precisely the plan that we intended to begin to initiate, and I’m well satisfied with it,” Gen. Franks said.
“It is only those who believe this should be done in two weeks’ time … who are disappointed in this,” he said.
The remarks came amid criticism from some in Congress and the press that the military campaign is bogging down.
Gen. Franks is visiting Washington after a trip to Central and Southwest Asia, and will brief President Bush today on the military campaign, which is now in its 33rd day.
Mr. Rumsfeld introduced Gen. Franks to reporters, describing him as “a warrior, but also a wise and inspiring commander.”
“He has my full trust and respect, and I know he has the trust and respect of the president of the United States,” Mr. Rumsfeld said of the four-star general.
Heavy fighting between the Taliban and the Northern Alliance is under way south of the town, according to news reports from the region. U.S. jets are providing aerial bombing support.
“Yes, we are interested in Mazar-e-Sharif,” said Gen. Franks. “We’re interested in it because it would provide a land bridge … up to Uzbekistan, which provides us, among other things, a humanitarian pathway for us to move supplies out of Central Asia and down into Afghanistan.”
Gen. Franks said that shortly after the September 11 terrorist attacks, he was asked to draw up “credible military options” for the anti-terrorism campaign, which he described as an unconventional conflict.
“We’re a bit over a month into this effort,” Gen. Franks said. “I have described this as an effort that will, in fact, take as long as it takes. … This effort is 24 hours a day. It has been, and it will continue to be, 24 hours a day.”
Gen. Franks would not say if the United States is winning the conflict, which began Oct. 7. “What we have said is that we like the progress we have had up to this point,” he said.
“Our job has to do with terrorist organizations, networks with global reach, and it has to do with the command and control of the Taliban,” Gen. Franks said. “And so when we say we’re on our timeline, that’s what we’re talking about. When I indicate that I find our progress up to this point satisfactory, that’s what I’m making reference to.”
Mr. Rumsfeld also said that progress in the conflict is difficult to measure because it is not like the island-hopping by U.S. forces in the Pacific during World War II.
The defense secretary said he expects the various unconventional forms of warfare to lead to the collapse of international terrorist networks, alluding to the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 through “pressure.”
On the fighting near Mazar-e-Sharif, located about 50 miles from the Uzbek border town of Termuz, Gen. Franks said it is “a bit early for us to characterize this as the success that will enable our establishment of the land bridge.”
“So I’m not prepared to do that right now,” he said. “But yes, there is a big fight that’s going on in the vicinity of Mazar-e-Sharif.”
Also yesterday, 85 Pakistani militants were reported killed in Afghanistan during a U.S. bombing raid.
A spokesman for the militant Harkat Jihad-i-Islami said the Pakistani fighters were killed near Mazar-e-Sharif, Reuters reported from Islamabad, Pakistan. If confirmed, the attack would have claimed the largest number of mass Taliban casualties as yet.
Meanwhile, the commander of the battle group led by the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt said yesterday that Taliban fighters have been using shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles on U.S. jets.
“They still have the capability to attack our airplanes. They haven’t been nearly successful yet,” Rear Adm. Mark Fitzgerald told the Associated Press on board the ship, located in waters near Afghanistan.
U.S. air strikes have destroyed most of the Taliban air-defense system. However, a number of anti-aircraft missiles are being carried by Taliban fighters on horseback, Adm. Fitzgerald said.
The admiral said the Taliban is defecting as a result of the raids.
“We’ve seen reporting of a lot of attrition on the side of the Taliban because of our bombing and we’ve seen movement of the coalition forces, particularly around Mazar-e-Sharif,” he said.