U.S. splits Afghanistan into 'engagement zones'
By Rowan Scarborough - THE WASHINGTON TIMES
The Pentagon announced yesterday its 11-day air campaign shifted this week to the new tactic of "engagement zones." Confident that much of the ruling Taliban's air defenses have been subdued, U.S. pilots lowered their aircraft within their assigned geographic boxes to strike soldiers, tanks and convoys. They now have the ability to hit anything military that moves in Afghanistan 24 hours a day.
"Simply put, we now have the access to be able to do engagement zones that we might not have had with an air-defense capability that we've recently taken out," said Rear Adm. John Stufflebeem, the Pentagon's deputy director of operations. "We are systematically pulling away at those legs underneath the stool that the Taliban leadership counts on to be able to exert their influence and power."
The U.S. military also continued to ratchet up the punishment meter by sending at least two AC-130 gunships to unleash rapid volleys from 40 mm and 105 mm cannons on Taliban forces. The Pentagon initially sent the Spectre gunships into action Monday night against elite troops hunkered down in the Taliban stronghold of Kandahar in southeast Afghanistan.
With little resistance from anti-aircraft missiles or artillery, U.S. planners feel confident in sending night-fighting gunships on low-flying, terrifying assaults on troops below.
Built from the airframe of the venerable C-130 cargo turboprop, the Spectre is often deployed to provide rapid-fire suppression for commandos on the ground. The Washington Times reported this week that such an operation will occur "very soon." The paper quoted an Army source in yesterday's edition saying Army Special Forces soldiers, or Green Berets, are now onboard the carrier USS Kitty Hawk off the coast of Pakistan.
The Pentagon yesterday sent another wave of fighters and bombers over Afghanistan, marking three straight days of the heaviest bombing of the war. Adm. Stufflebeem said 95 fighters and heavy bombers hit 12 target areas of airfields, anti-aircraft artillery, armored vehicles, ammunition depots and training camps.
At a Pentagon press conference, the admiral displayed a video of a bomb striking a 2nd Taliban Corps garrison and a bivouac. Officials say the Taliban military numbers from 20,000 to 40,000 troops, armed with Soviet-era weapons, tanks and missiles.
On one major front in the battle by the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance to seize the city of Mazar-e-Sharif, Adm. Stufflebeem described clashes as "back and forth, or ebbing and flowing."
He said the opposition was near the city's airport, which could prove to be a valuable launching pad for U.S. forces to strike other targets.
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