Rumsfeld: U.S. troops on the ground as liaisons
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said Tuesday that ground troops have been deployed to Afghanistan in very limited numbers to act as liaisons, primarily to the opposition Northern Alliance, who are faced off against an array of Taliban militia units north of the capital, Kabul.
Rumsfeld described the numbers of troops on the ground with opposition forces as "modest," and he did not reveal from which branch of the services they came, saying only that they were "uniformed." Some, he said, have moved around in areas held by some opposition groups in the south of Afghanistan.
"We do have a very modest number of ground troops in the country, and they are there for liaison purposes and have been doing an excellent job of assisting with the coordination for resupplies of various types as well as targeting," said Rumsfeld, flanked by British Defense Minister Geoffrey Hoon.
Hoon was in Washington to coordinate with the Defense Department on Britain's "Operation Veritas," the military arm of its contribution to the war on international terrorism.
"It is true we don't have any ground forces such as (the amount in) World War II or the Gulf War, but nor have we ruled that out," Rumsfeld said at a joint news conference with Hoon.
The British have no troops on the ground in Afghanistan at present, Hoon reported. Still, a contingent of Royal Marines is being dispatched to the region as part of a significantly sized British flotilla that includes the largest aircraft carriers in the Royal Navy, all equipped to act as floating helicopter bases.
'They'll move on their own'
Of the Northern Alliance and its affiliated groups, Rumsfeld said the U.S. personnel on the ground are acting as assistants and are not in place to give the anti-Taliban forces a "go order." The work of the liaisons on the ground, he said, has been accomplished while a large percentage of U.S. air activity has shifted to softening nearby Taliban lines.
"For today, 80 percent of our effort is devoted to front-line troops," he said.
"There certainly are preparations being made" for a Northern Alliance offensive, Rumsfeld continued. "Those people are independent operators. When they decide to move forward is in their control."
"What we are basically involved in is providing assistance and food and ammunition and liaison in a way that targeting should be more precise," Rumsfeld said. "These people have been fighting for ages. They know their own minds, and they are going to move when they see fit."
U.S.-led warplanes launched another round of airstrikes early Tuesday on Kandahar, with low-flying jets pounding targets around the southern Taliban stronghold.
The pre-dawn assault lasted into daytime, with the Taliban returning anti-aircraft fire. Residents said the planes targeted military sites west of the city, although that could not be confirmed.
Despite Taliban claims that the United States was engaging in "genocide of Afghan civilians," Kandahar residents expressed confidence that the warplanes were not targeting civilians, CNN's Kamal Hyder reported. Electricity was off in the city -- only homes with generators had power -- and there was no running water.
Several Taliban fighters said morale is high, and they expect to continue playing hide-and-seek with allied bombers for several months. U.S. intelligence sources said the Taliban have been hiding in residential areas that the United States has not bombed.
The Taliban and members of al Qaeda, the terrorist network that has been blamed for the September 11 carnage in New York, Washington and rural Pennsylvania, have also dispersed fighters and equipment through hundreds, if not thousands of caves and underground bunkers dotting the jagged, mountainous Afghan countryside.
Rumsfeld highlighted the existence of those caves Tuesday as he sought to calm nerves about the success of the 4-week-old U.S. military campaign against the terrorists and their supporters.
"There is an enormous number in that country," he said. "They are well-developed, long and large, and they have been making effective use of those caves for a long time.
"We keep finding them and keep working them over. We don't know how many there are until we find them, and we keep finding them all the time."
U.S. Navy Rear Adm. John Stufflebeem, who spoke after Rumsfeld at the Pentagon briefing, discounted reports of high spirits among the Taliban, as well as varied assessments of their ability to avoid causalities to personnel and war materiel by keeping their assets concealed.
"It is certain we will defeat the Taliban, and we will do it with the Northern Alliance and other opposition forces," Stufflebeem said. "It isn't a matter of if, it is a matter of when."
Stufflebeem also said that about 70 U.S.-led aircraft were involved in strikes on Monday against 13 planned targets in Afghanistan, as well as other targets of opportunity. Those targets included terrorist and Taliban bunkers, tunnels, an airfield and Taliban military forces aligned against opposition forces.
On the diplomatic front, Gen. Tommy R. Franks, the head of U.S. Central Command -- who runs the massive day-to-day operations of U.S. military operations in the area -- met Tuesday with Uzbekistan President Islam Karimov and Uzbek Foreign Minister Abdulaziz Kamilov.
Last month, Uzbekistan agreed to provide the United States with use of its airspace and the "necessary military and civilian infrastructure" of one of its airports in the U.S.-led campaign against Afghanistan.
In a signal that the bombing would not halt any time soon, Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf said Tuesday during a broadcast interview that he accepted that the military campaign had to continue.
Musharraf, who has been under heavy domestic pressure for his support of the airstrikes in neighboring Afghanistan, said he would not press the United States to halt the bombing during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. Musharraf has said he hopes the operation will be brought to a "quick conclusion."
CNN's Ian Christopher McCaleb and Kamal Hyder contributed to this report.
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