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RESPONSE TO TERROR | MILITARY

More Elite Troops Sent In

Military: New commandos bring number of American soldiers in Afghanistan to more than 50. U.S. helicopter rescues opposition leader.

November 06, 2001|ESTHER SCHRADER and PAUL RICHTER | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

SIGONELLA NAVAL AIR STATION, Italy — The Pentagon more than doubled the number of its commandos operating in Afghanistan over the weekend, fanning them out to locations around the country, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said Monday.

But as the brutal Afghan winter weather takes hold, U.S. military personnel working in the country face increasingly treacherous conditions and are being forced to take dangerous risks, Rumsfeld said.

He also announced that an Afghan opposition leader was pulled out of Afghanistan on Sunday by helicopter-borne U.S. troops. Hamid Karzai, a prominent Afghan tribal leader from the dominant Pushtun ethnic group, had come under attack by the Taliban late last week in southern Afghanistan.

Rumsfeld said Karzai will remain in Pakistan "for a period" for meetings and then plans to return to Afghanistan. He did not say with whom Karzai intends to meet.

"He's on the right side," Rumsfeld said. "The area of the country that he is operating in and the tribes that he's in contact with are obviously the dominant population in the country. That whole class has a big role to play in the post-Taliban government."

Meanwhile, in the first official assessment of the war's toll on enemy forces, a senior military official in Washington said the Pentagon believes Taliban front-line forces have suffered "substantial" losses.

Commenting on enemy casualties, Rear Adm. John D. Stufflebeem, a senior official with the Joint Chiefs of Staff, conceded that it is difficult to accurately gauge Taliban losses. But he said that in some areas, it has been days since the Afghan regime's troops have fired back at positions of anti-Taliban forces.

"I think that's a very positive sign," he said.

In the last few days, U.S. warplanes have focused their attacks on Taliban front-line troops and equipment. Last week, the U.S. began using heavy B-52 bombers to drop dozens of bombs on the enemy, a technique that is often useful in wiping out entrenched infantry units.

Rumsfeld, speaking to reporters at the end of a four-day trip to Russia and Central Asia, said small groups of commandos have been sent to more than four locations around Afghanistan since Friday. They joined a small group of similar troops already stationed in the country.

The mission of the commandos, Rumsfeld said, is to help anti-Taliban forces formulate military strategy, route them supplies and help U.S. pilots spot Taliban forces and Al Qaeda terrorists. U.S. military advisors hope that these efforts will aid the opposition forces in mounting ground offensives that will begin to claim enemy territory before winter slows the fighting.

The Pentagon hopes that these victories will encourage other Afghan groups to join the fight.

Until the new commando units were deployed into Afghanistan, the special operations forces had been concentrated in the northern part of the country, Rumsfeld said. There, the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance has been waging war on the country's radical Islamic fundamentalist rulers for several years.

Rumsfeld said the new U.S. troops reinforced existing commando operations and established new ones. "Now we're in four, maybe more" areas, he said without specifying them. "And that will accrue to our advantage over the coming period."

Speaking with reporters accompanying him on his return to Washington after he traveled to Russia, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and India, Rumsfeld said the commandos are making it far easier for U.S. pilots to locate and destroy key targets.

"Clearly, the targeting is improving, there's just no question about it," Rumsfeld said. "The [targets] we're actually hitting and know we're hitting are going up every day."

The new groups of commandos bring to more than 50 the number of U.S. soldiers working directly inside Afghanistan with anti-Taliban forces, a senior Pentagon official said. Last week, when Rumsfeld first acknowledged that commandos were based in Afghanistan, he would say only that they numbered fewer than 100.

The soldiers stay on the move, often meeting with opposition leaders around campfires and sometimes riding horseback to evade Taliban forces, U.S. officials said.

Rumsfeld also announced Monday that U.S. forces are deploying for the first time a high-altitude unmanned spy plane called the Global Hawk to conduct reconnaissance in Afghanistan.

Intelligence-gathering tools have become key in the effort to find the leaders of the Taliban and its allies in the Al Qaeda network.

Rumsfeld said deployment of the aircraft from Sigonella Naval Air Station in Italy was a direct consequence of the problems the military has been having with a lower-flying unmanned aircraft, the Predator.

The Global Hawk, which is still in development, is able to withstand the icing problems that have felled two Predators over Afghanistan, Rumsfeld said. It flies as high as 65,000 feet and can remain above its target for 35 hours, officials say.

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