U.S. Hopes to Break the Taliban With Pounding From the Air
Wednesday October 17 08:54 AM EDT
By MICHAEL R. GORDON The New York Times
There are increasing signs that unrelenting and intensified air strikes on Afghanistan are starting to strain the Taliban in its moment of weakness.
WASHINGTON, Oct. 16 The intensified airstrikes now under way against the Taliban, a blitz of day and night operations, are intended to crack the leadership in its moment of weakness.
Not only are United States forces pouring on the firepower, but they are also expanding the list of targets and permitting pilots to fire at will within designated zones. Warplanes have begun to strike Taliban troops defending Kabul, the Afghan capital. And today the Pentagon hinted that the raids would soon be broadened to include Taliban front-line forces that have been battling the Northern Alliance, the anti-Taliban group.
"Yesterday was a particularly heavy day," said Lt. Gen. Gregory S. Newbold, the director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff. "Today is another intense day."
The waves of airstrikes more than 100 warplanes, including two AC-130 gunships, were dispatched Monday against targets in Afghanistan far exceed the expectations of many analysts who took to heart Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld's observation that Afghanistan is not a "target rich" environment.
But the Americans have every reason to keep the pressure on. Ever since the Vietnam War, United States military doctrine has called for unrelenting operations in the hope of breaking the enemy's resistance. And there are increasing signs that the Taliban are beginning to show the strain.
The Northern Alliance has pushed to the outskirts of Mazar-i-Sharif, a strategically important crossroads in northeastern Afghanistan. The fall of the city would not only strip the Taliban of a key logistics hub for their northern defense but it would also open up a supply line for the Northern Alliance. The city could also potentially provide a forward base of operations for any American special forces that might operate within Afghanistan.
There have been some Taliban defections in the north. Another indication that the pressure may have created internal fissures came when the Taliban foreign minister initiated secret talks in Pakistan in the hope of drawing Washington into negotiating a bombing pause.
This does not mean that the Taliban are on the verge of collapse. Pentagon officials say that American intelligence about the inner workings of the Taliban is so limited that Washington may not know if the government is about to topple until it actually begins to happen, but it means that Washington has every incentive to keep up the pressure.
"There is no interest in a bombing pause," a Pentagon official said tonight.
The Taliban have several "centers of gravity" as military planners like to call the essential elements that sustain the leadership. And the American military campaign has been trying systematically to attack and weaken most of them.
The Pentagon's air campaign has followed a standard script, the one Washington used in the Persian Gulf against the Iraqi leader, Saddam Hussein, and later in Yugoslavia against President Slobodan Milosevic.
The first step was to pound the Taliban's air defenses, particularly its surface-to-air missiles, so that American and British warplanes could operate more freely throughout Afghanistan. Having gained air superiority, the Pentagon has stepped up its strikes against a critical array of targets.
Leadership targets have been a principal focus. The United States has been making a determined effort to bomb Mullah Muhammad Omar, the supreme leader of the Taliban and an ally of the suspected terrorist Osama bin Laden. Many of the strikes have been concentrated in and around Kandahar, the Taliban's political base.
Some are aimed at destroying command posts and communications or are directed at the leaders themselves. The effort to undermine the Taliban leadership has been so persistent that the Taliban foreign minister, Mullah Abdul Wakil Muttawakil, in talks on Monday in Islamabad, told the Pakistanis that he and other Taliban officials were afraid to travel between Kandahar and Kabul.
Asked about efforts to attack Mullah Omar and Mr. bin Laden, General Newbold said, "To the degree that we can eliminate effective command and control we will try to do that as a legitimate military target."
The British, the United States' only military ally in the operation so far, made a similar point today. The British issued a series of campaign objectives that stated that one goal was "to fragment the present Taliban regime."
Another focus, or "center of gravity" has been the Taliban's military forces. American forces attacked the Taliban air force and airfield near Mazar-i-Sharif at the start of the campaign, and have repeatedly attacked the garrison of Arab and other foreign fighters recruited by Mr. bin Laden, hoping to make it easier for the Northern Alliance to take the city.
Adding to the firepower against the Taliban's ground forces, two AC- 130's blasted garrisons and barracks in an urbanized area near Khandahar today, a Pentagon official said.
For all of the strikes, however, there has still been a critical target that has been largely exempt from the barrage of airstrikes: the Taliban forces that man the trench lines near the Northern Alliance.
Fearful of appearing too closely allied with the Northern Alliance and of facilitating their occupation of Kabul, Washington has yet to attack the Taliban's front-line forces that are blocking the Northern Alliance from moving toward Kabul. The Northern Alliance is dominated by ethnic Uzbeks and Tajiks and is unacceptable to many Pashtuns to the south, as well as to Pakistan, which has emerged as a crucial coalition ally.
Nor has Washington's program of covert assistance yet yielded arms or material support for the Northern Alliance. The Central Intelligence Agency has also made little headway in organizing resistance in the south.
On Monday, Mr. Rumsfeld acknowledged that the relationship between the United States and the anti- Taliban forces "is still incomplete." Today General Newbold hinted that the target list might soon be expanded, despite the political sensitivities, to include the strikes against the front-line Taliban forces, which the Northern Alliance has been asking for. "None of them, including those that are opposite the Northern Alliance, are immune in any way," he said.
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