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RESPONSE TO TERROR | REGIME'S ENDGAMES BEGINS

Deployment of Marines Signals a New Chapter

Military: Advance corps of 500 leads to talk of a massive ground buildup. Rumsfeld warns against such speculation.

November 27, 2001|JOHN HENDREN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — The arrival of U.S. Marines on the ground in Afghanistan signals a new, intensified phase in an unconventional war, with large groups of American troops stationed on the ground facing new opportunities--and perils.

The 500 Marines who arrived Sunday are an advance corps of an initial deployment of about 1,000, officials said. It is the largest deployment of U.S. ground troops since the 1991 Persian Gulf War, dwarfing the few hundred U.S. special operations soldiers already working with anti-Taliban forces on the ground throughout Afghanistan and leading to speculation of a massive buildup of U.S. ground troops.

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said the Marines, who seized an airstrip outside the southeastern city of Kandahar on Monday, are merely setting up a base for further U.S. operations, and he insisted that they are not an "occupying force." Yet U.S. troops are now defending--and basing attacks from--acres of land they had not sought to hold before U.S. airstrikes and opposition forces tamed the region.

Whether the introduction of Marines signals a coming buildup of U.S. ground troops, military analysts say, the move marks a newfound assurance among Pentagon strategists that the region is now under the control of Afghan opposition forces allied with the U.S.-led coalition and that the Marines will probably not have to defend their new base.

FOR THE RECORD
Los Angeles Times Thursday November 29, 2001 Home Edition Part A Part A Page 2 A2 Desk 1 inches; 24 words Type of Material: Correction
U.S. forces--A photo Tuesday in Section A showing American troops preparing to join in the fight against a Taliban prisoners' uprising misidentified the men as Marines.

"It suggests that we're entering a new phase and the opposition has the Taliban on the ropes enough. This is really stepping up the pressure," said Michael Vickers, a former Army Green Beret and CIA operations officer now with the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Studies. "If your enemy is in the nearby area, to be within a very short helicopter distance of them might be useful."

That became apparent Monday. Within hours of a warning by President Bush in a White House Rose Garden address that "America must be prepared for loss of life," pilots from the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit at Camp Pendleton flying AH-1W Cobra gunships held a convoy of Taliban tanks and armored personnel carriers in their sights, a Pentagon official said. Two Navy F-14s swooped in from the aircraft carrier Carl Vinson and destroyed many of the vehicles, said Rear Adm. Craig Quigley, a Pentagon spokesman. Yet the incident highlighted the newfound vulnerability of U.S. forces amassed on the ground.

Under military doctrine, the Marine expeditionary units are an advance force that paves the way for additional troops. However, they also can establish a base from which existing special operations forces can operate. They also are capable of replacing special operations forces, who now direct U.S. warplanes to targets on the ground, and can launch rapid strikes on what the Pentagon calls targets of opportunity.

Blocking leaders of the Taliban and Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda terrorism network from moving--a task that until now has been carried out by special operations forces--is clearly part of the Marines' mission. Gen. Tommy Franks, head of the U.S. Central Command in Tampa, Fla., which is directing the war, wanted Marines to have a base from which they could block and control roads and other modes of travel.

Rumsfeld discouraged observers from speculating that the Marines are paving the way for a dramatic increase of ground forces.

"Their purpose is to establish a forward base of operations to help pressure the Taliban forces in Afghanistan, to prevent Taliban and Al Qaeda terrorists from moving freely about the country," he said in a Pentagon briefing. "We are pursuing them across the country, from north to south and east to west, and intend to continue following them wherever they go. We now have forces that can more successfully interdict highways and main routes of transportation and communication."

Because the Marine units are trained to enter hostile territory and set up an initial base of operations, they come heavily armed. The 2,100 members of the Camp Pendleton unit, for example, have 16 light armored vehicles, a variety of mortars and missile launchers, amphibious vehicles, tanks, four types of helicopters and armed AV-8B Harrier jets.

Despite their offensive capability, there are simply too few Marines on the ground to perform searches for Bin Laden and Al Qaeda and Taliban leaders in urban areas or in the caves and tunnels that crisscross Afghanistan, military analysts said.

"At this stage, I think we're still relying on the Afghan opposition to gain territory and to take territory, along with the U.S. advisors," Vickers said, referring to the special operations personnel.

The Camp Pendleton unit, commanded by Col. Thomas D. Waldhauser, arrived from the amphibious assault ship Peleliu and other Navy vessels in the Arabian Sea. The 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit, which is based at Camp Lejeune, N.C., and commanded by Col. Andrew Frick, arrived from aboard the Bataan and other ships. The fact that the two units were joined into one brigade under Brig. Gen. James N. Mattis suggested to some military analysts that more Marines were to come.

"It's safe to assume that number's going to grow," said Phillip Anderson, a former Marine officer who is now director of defense content for http://www.intellibridge.com, a defense information firm. "I think they're going to be a stabilizing force. . . . That's going to allow for the introduction of a larger force."

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