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RESPONSE TO TERROR | MILITARY

Ramadan Won't Slow U.S. Offensive, Bush Declares

War: President asks for patience with the mission. Four injured soldiers are rescued in Afghanistan.

November 03, 2001|JAMES GERSTENZANG and PAUL RICHTER and PAUL WATSON | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

WASHINGTON — Appealing for patience with the military campaign in Afghanistan, President Bush declared Friday that "this is not an instant gratification war" and said he won't order the military to hold back during Ramadan, the Muslim month of fasting and prayer that begins in about two weeks.

In Afghanistan, four injured members of a Special Forces team were rescued and carried to safety after their helicopter crashed in severe weather, Pentagon officials said Friday evening. The injuries were not life-threatening.

The badly damaged helicopter, one of two in a team sent to rescue an ill soldier, was later destroyed by F-14 Tomcat fighter planes from the carrier Theodore Roosevelt in the Arabian Sea, the officials said. It is standard procedure to destroy equipment that could be of value to enemy troops.

In the face of setbacks on the battlefield--the latest posed by the weather and by ground fire the Pentagon said blocked the deployment of special operations forces--Bush stressed that the U.S. military is moving ahead with its mission to target the Taliban regime that has sheltered Osama bin Laden.

Despite pressure from the Muslim world, particularly from key ally Pakistan, to stop the fighting during the holiest time of the Islamic calendar, the president said: "The enemy won't rest during Ramadan and neither will we. We're going to pursue this war until we achieve our objective."

Bush's comments suggest that he is digging in his heels as the early optimism expressed by senior defense officials has given way to acknowledgment that the Taliban regime in Afghanistan is a stubborn foe--and as the U.S. strategy has been criticized as ineffective.

As the military campaign nears the start of its fifth week, U.S. bombers--among them updated models of the B-52s used more than 30 years ago over Vietnam--continued to target Taliban front lines.

As if working his way through a checklist of targets, Bush said the Taliban's air defenses--struck in the first hours of the combat missions that began Oct. 7--"have been completely demolished."

"Whatever assets they had . . . have been demolished," Bush said. "And we're slowly but surely tightening the net to achieve our objective.

"We're making it harder for the enemy to communicate. We're making it harder for the enemy to protect himself. We're making it harder for the enemy to hide. And we're going to get him, and them," Bush told reporters at the end of a meeting with Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo.

"The American people should be satisfied with the progress we're making on the ground," Bush said.

But the degree to which the United States is inflicting punishing damage on Taliban forces--and on Bin Laden's Al Qaeda terrorist network--is difficult, if not impossible, to assess from afar. Journalists have virtually no independent access to many of the targeted areas in Afghanistan and, more important, Afghanistan is not what the military calls a "target-rich" environment.

Still, said a former senior Pentagon official, there are ammunition supplies, some heavy weapons and headquarters still to be struck.

The former official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, acknowledged that the United States "got off to a slow start." He predicted that the pace is going to quicken.

'Limited Political Time' for U.S.

At the same time, the defense expert said, Pentagon officials are facing increasing pressure from the American public to demonstrate success. "It's dawning on them they have limited political time," he said.

The question of how the United States should handle Ramadan, during which observant Muslims do not eat or drink from dawn until dusk, has dogged military planners from the start. Speaking on CNN's "Larry King Live" last week, Pakistan's president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, said that "one would hope for restraint during the month of Ramadan" because continuing the battle then "would certainly have some negative effects in the Muslim world."

Bush's comments appeared to end any debate about the political wisdom of conducting an aggressive military operation during Ramadan out of concern that it would offend the moderate Arab states whose support the United States has been courting.

Seeming to defer to the Pentagon, he said: "We'll let the military speak to that. They're in charge of this operation. This is not a political campaign--this is a war." But, expressing "my own personal attitude," he made his controlling vote clear: There would be no letup during Ramadan.

Meanwhile, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld told reporters as he flew from Washington to Moscow that the Taliban forces were "substantially weakened, in many cases cloistered away from the people."

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