- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 29, 2001

American special-operations troops have slipped into Afghanistan on a small number of reconnaissance missions, but have not begun their expected mission of hunting down Osama bin Laden or other terrorists, U.S. officials said yesterday.
Officials say they neither know bin Laden's location nor have enough intelligence to conduct combat missions. They described the incursions as routine for commandos as they prepare to attack bin Laden's al Qaeda network.
The sources say the first commando strike is still weeks away, unless the Pentagon receives hard evidence of bin Laden's location. Still, President Bush yesterday proclaimed the United States is in "hot pursuit" a reference to the combined FBI, military and intelligence campaign to find terrorists.
Afghanistan's ruling Taliban militia has refused the president's demand to deliver bin Laden.
The Washington Times reported yesterday that the U.S. military has made contact with the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance in northern Afghanistan. The United States has given battlefield advice and listened to demands for weapons, and for air cover against Taliban jet fighters, officials said.
The administration has made no secret of plans to rely heavily on covert operations in the first phase of Mr. Bush's war on terrorism to capture or kill bin Laden, the No. 1 suspect in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on America.
The U.S. Army Special Operations Command at Fort Bragg, N.C., said last week its troops received deployment orders, but declined to say where they were headed.
Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, two former Soviet republics that fear a Taliban-inspired uprising, have granted the United States permission to launch strikes from their soil.
An Army officer, who asked not to be named, said that in the early days of a deployment, special-operations troops adjust to the altitude, weather and local customs. They study maps, establish communication links with support units, contact possible indigenous allies and get briefed on the mission.
After that, small teams go on reconnaissance missions to understand better the terrain and possible threats. Since the Northern Alliance controls areas near Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, the Americans would be able to carry out some of these tasks in friendly territory.
Defense officials said in interviews this week that no strike will be launched until the military has hard intelligence on a terrorist's whereabouts.
The troops also need a thorough threat assessment, especially on whether the terrorists own hand-held anti-aircraft missiles such as the U.S. Stinger.
Army commandos travel in low-flying Black Hawk helicopters. But the heat-seeking Stinger is a deadly foe.
The Afghan mujahideen used the weapon in the 1980s to devastate the Soviet air force and send the occupying Red Army into retreat.
U.S. troops have no intention of occupying land for any length of time, as the Soviets tried unsuccessfully.
Instead, the troops will go in, strike, and scurry back across the border or to a secure launch site.
Said Mr. Bush yesterday, "I am fully aware of the difficulties the Russians had in Afghanistan. Our intelligence people and our State Department people are also fully aware. It is very hard to fight a guerrilla war with conventional forces, and we understand that. That's why I have explained to the American people that the new war on terror is going to be a different war. There have been lessons learned in the past, and our government is very aware of those lessons."
Mr. Bush yesterday continued his policy of not discussing possible military action.
"I will not be discussing any of our military plans," he told reporters at the White House. "It is very important for the American people to know that any public discussions of military or intelligence matters could jeopardize any mission that we may be thinking about."
Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz said this week that the United States is still collecting intelligence on Afghanistan and possible targets for an armada of warplanes deployed in the region.
"We contemplate that our military will be called on to take action," he said. "But since generating information about targets is a crucial part of it, we don't believe in just demonstrating that our military is capable of bombing things. The whole world knows that. What we want to do is be effective."
The Pentagon will not say which special-operations troops were deployed. The Army has about 24,000 active, Guard and Reserve commandos.
They include Special Forces, or Green Berets, Rangers and Delta Force, the supersecretive anti-terror unit.
Green Berets work in small teams, specializing in sniping, sabotage, demolition and assaults. The airborne 75th Ranger Regiment, based at Fort Benning, Ga., operates in larger units and takes on bigger missions, such as seizing an airport or a building complex.
Defense officials say privately that the evolving plan for infiltrating Afghanistan calls for the insertion of no more than 40 commandos at a time.

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