U.S. Commander, Saying Rebels Need Help, Hints More Troops
Friday November 09 09:00 AM EST
By THOM SHANKER with DEXTER FILKINS The New York Times
Gen. Tommy R. Franks gave his first Washington briefing on Thursday as the Northern Alliance claimed it was close to capturing the key Afghan city Mazar-i-Sharif.
WASHINGTON, Nov. 8 In his first Pentagon briefing since the war began, the American commander of combat operations in Afghanistan said today that the United States was continuing to build its war-fighting ability in the region, and hinted that larger deployments were still to come.
Even as he rejected criticism of the current war plan's heavy reliance on militias backed by the United States to oust the Taliban regime, the commander, Gen. Tommy R. Franks of the Army, said he could not be certain that those militias would prevail without the help of significant numbers of foreign troops, including Americans.
"As we stand where we are now, we want to keep all the options open," said General Franks, who is head of the United States Central Command. "We want to continue planning, so that we can continue to do what I described initially, which is provide our national command authority, provide the secretary, provide the president of the United States with credible military options, irrespective of what we hope or what we wish may happen."
Senior Defense Department officials and military officers declined to give details of potential new deployments, except to express doubts that sizable numbers of fresh troops would be moving into the region in coming days.
As General Franks made the rounds in Washington and briefed reporters at the Pentagon, rebel fighters of the Northern Alliance said that they had advanced to the gates of the vital northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif, and that they had delivered an ultimatum to the Taliban soldiers there to surrender or perish.
An aide to Ostad Atta Muhammad, a Northern Alliance commander, said his forces, in two elements, had marched to within five miles of the airport on the eastern edge of the city and to within 10 miles on the south.
Today was the third consecutive day that the Northern Alliance has claimed to have moved closer to Mazar-i-Sharif. The claim to be within easy reach of the city was not confirmed by the Pentagon, and General Franks said only that there was "a big fight that's going on in the vicinity."
The general described capture of Mazar-i-Sharif as important to American war planners. It would provide a land bridge to Uzbekistan, where the United States has positioned troops from the 10th Mountain Division, search-and-rescue helicopters for Special Operations and an unknown number of reconnaissance teams. Securing Mazar-i-Sharif would also allow the flow of military and relief supplies out of other Central Asia countries into Afghanistan.
Of the Northern Alliance claims, however, he said, "It's a bit early for us to characterize this as the success that will enable our establishment of the land bridge."
Even as they contemplated committing more forces inside Afghanistan, officials said today that concerns about security at a World Trade Organization meeting in Qatar that is to begin on Friday had prompted them to send the amphibious assault ship Peleliu from the Arabian Sea toward the Persian Gulf. The ship carries the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit, a 2000- member unit that specializes in rapid reaction missions, including extracting hostages.
Pentagon officials said the Peleliu, with its contingent of about 20 transport helicopters and 6 Harrier jets capable of vertical landings, would cruise within helicopter range of the city of Doha, where the trade meeting will be held.
General Franks traveled to Washington from his headquarters at MacDill Air Force Base, Fla., today to brief Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and Gen. Richard B. Myers of the Air Force, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He will brief President Bush on Friday. He said that at the war's one-month mark, attacks would continue despite winter weather, and that a buildup would continue at the same time.
"What you see is that frequently we will undertake military operations at the same time we build capacity," said General Franks, whose command oversees military operations stretching from the Red Sea to the Indian Ocean.
Officials hope to increase the number of land-based attack jets operating in Afghanistan. But that is dependent on an assessment of three airstrips in Tajikistan, the former Soviet republic that borders Afghanistan to the northeast. Basing fighters there would greatly increase the number of daily strike missions, the vast majority of which are now assigned to Navy jets flying greater distances from carrier decks in the Arabian Sea.
Some military officers suggested that with fighters in Tajikistan, the number of daily missions could be increased three-fold.
A Pentagon official said that while the advent of winter was expected to hinder the efforts of both the Taliban and opposition groups in the north, military operations in the south could accelerate. The Taliban's political capital, Kandahar, is in the south.
A Defense Department official familiar with the war planning said: "Most of what needs to be done right now is in the south. The Taliban headquarters is based in the south."
If the Northern Alliance's claims prove true, the advance toward Mazar-i-Sharif sets the stage for a climactic battle that could determine the fate of northern Afghanistan. The city, a few miles from the Uzbek border to the north, has direct road access to most of the country's major cities, including Kabul in the south, Herat to the west and Taliqan in the east. If the city fell to the alliance, supplies could pour across the border from Uzbekistan, where American troops are stationed.
American military planners also envision the city and its airport as a possible base for operations inside Afghanistan.
Still in search of a victory since the start of American-led bombing and missile strikes on Oct. 7, the Northern Alliance also showed signs today that it was preparing for another offensive in northeastern Afghanistan, where they face the Taliban along a 50-mile front.
In an interview by satellite telephone, a Northern Alliance spokesman, Qudratullah Hurmat, said General Muhammad's forces and those of Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum had advanced to the town of Chashma-i- Shafa, about 10 miles southwest of Mazar-i-Sharif. He said today's advance, like those before, had been accomplished with the help of an American aerial bombardment directed by United States military advisers on the ground. Mr. Hurmat put the number of American advisers in the area at 18.
"We should be able to move on Mazar-i-Sharif tomorrow or the day after tomorrow," Mr. Hurmat said from his post at Shulgareh, about 25 miles southwest of Mazar-i-Sharif. "The Taliban can no longer resist."
The Northern Alliance's march toward Mazar-i-Sharif seems halting at best, and one that could be reversed at any time. Today's advances, if true, would put the army back to where it was about a month ago, when its leaders announced, as they did today, that they would be entering the city soon. Then the Taliban counterattacked and threw the Northern Alliance back several miles.
Leaders of the Northern Alliance say that this time, the direct intervention of Americans has turned the tide in their favor. Mr. Hurmat said the American advisers had involved themselves in virtually every aspect of the campaign except the actual fighting, helping to plan attacks and direct the troops.
Mr. Hurmat said the biggest difference was American air power. Today alone, he said, American jets hit Taliban positions in three separate waves.
"The presence of the American officials is very essential to us," Mr. Hurmat said. "They are coordinating all of the tactical aircraft that are supporting us."
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