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Special Operations Forces Reported to be in Afghanistan

Aired September 28, 2001 - 11:02   ET


JOHN KING, CNN ANCHOR: Two developing stories we're tracking at this hour: one on the diplomatic front, one on the military front. First, diplomacy: Perhaps a last-ditch diplomatic effort by the government of Pakistan, CNN is told, has failed. A Pakistani delegation went into Afghanistan to meet with Taliban leaders to demand that the Taliban turn over Osama bin Laden, also demand that the Taliban release some Western aid workers being held on charges they were promoting Christianity withinside (sic) Afghanistan.

Sources telling CNN the Pakistani delegation was rebuffed; that the Taliban refused both requests. We will continue to track developments on that story in the hours ahead.

And also, as the military deployment continues, CNN has confirmed from senior U.S. officials that U.S. and, we are told, British special forces as well, have conducted operations inside Afghanistan in the past several days. One senior U.S. official telling CNN, yes, it is safe to report that U.S. special forces are, quote, "in the region and, at times, in country" -- "in country" meaning Afghanistan.

This official saying that the British have much more experience than the United States at this. An indication the United States relying on the help of a very key ally here in what we are led to believe is the very early stages of a military operation.

Now, some headlines this morning, including one in "USA Today" suggesting these special forces were in Afghanistan hunting down Osama bin Laden. Our sources steering us away from those reports, indicating that in almost all U.S. military deployments, special forces go in as an advance operation, if you will, to scout the terrain, matters like that.

And for more on the possibilities, I'd like to turn now to CNN national correspondent Bob Franken, who joins us at the Pentagon.

Bob, exactly what might we expect such an operation to look like?


BOB FRANKEN, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: ... the more confidential discussions you have with sources, the line is same: We simply do not report operational details. There has been no confirmation of the presence of special forces in Afghanistan from the Pentagon. However, talking to military experts, they agree it would be a surprise if they weren't in the region. You described earlier what is oftentimes called reconnaissance. That is to say, to check out the terrain, to check out the possibilities, if there is a more ambitious military foray in Afghanistan.

A personal experience during the war in Iraq, U.S. forces certain one of them has cross into Iraq a couple of days in secret before it was announced they were crossing. And I happened to, in fact, accompany one of those units. And the days were spent using binoculars looking at Iraqi positions and checking out peculiarities of the terrain. That is not unusual in a military situation like that where there, in effect, are advance forces.

We do know -- we've had publicly announced that special forces units are being -- special operations they call them -- are being a big part of the deployment that's going on now in-region, so to speak, in that part of the world and around the world. Special forces units do include the army special forces, do include the Rangers, perhaps, do include Navy SEALs. These are the types of units who would be expected to go in ahead of anything, as I said, just to see exactly what can be expected when the more elaborate, the bigger effort gets underway.

So Pentagon officials will say absolutely nothing. No confirmation about this particular report. But, as I said, the military experts say they would be surprised if this type of thing was not going on.

KING: Bob Franken a the Pentagon, thank you very much.

I want to stress, again, CNN is very sensitive about reporting on U.S. troop deployments in any way that could put lives at risk. We conducted this reporting only after reports in the Pakistani press and in "USA Today" today. There is some information about these deployments that we do withhold, on occasion, because of national security concerns and the safety of potential U.S. troop deployments.

Now for more on just what special forces might be capable of, want to turn the coverage over to Miles O'Brien, who's standing by at the CNN center in Atlanta.

MILES O'BRIEN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Thank you very much, John.

Let's look a look at special operations and how they might be used. Really, not a surprise to anybody who follows military operations at all that special operations might be involved at this juncture. They are really a precursor to any sort of military action, one way or another. The Pentagon has these units just for this very reason: to get in early and primarily to do reconnaissance.

Let's take a look at the map here for a minute; we'll give you a sense of what special operations might be doing. And when we talk about special operations, we're talking about all branches of the service. We're talking about Rangers from the Army, Green Berets from the Army. Unfortunately this map isn't moving right now, so I can't get right down there. But I will give you a sense that -- you have Green Berets, the -- now it's moving.

Let's get down on the ground here and give you a sense how this might have occurred. Let's give you a little geography of the area. It is possible that special operations could have staged in some of these northern countries with the blessing of Russia. It's possible that, for example, Uzbekistan or maybe Tajikistan might have provided a staging area for a map of the earth kind of helicopter mission which would have dropped a small team in there for -- no more than a half dozen members of a special forces operation.

These would be people who would not be in uniform. They would be there to blend in. They would primarily do their activities at night. And they would not be in a situation where they would be seeking out any sort of -- and if we can get the Telestrator up here I can do a little bit of talking about this.

They would not be doing anything that would stir up a hornets' nest, if you will, by seeking out people in caves -- that would not be a possibility. They would do everything they can to avoid being seen. That is the key right now. What this is doing is getting that human intelligence.

Among the things they'd want to see is, for example, where might a good place be to land a C-130, for example, to get supplies into a region. Obviously, an airfield is a logical place, but you want to find some of the places that are not so logical.

Let's take one more look at this map, and I want to show you some of the logical places for special operations, maybe, to begin their work. This is an area that is controlled by the group called the Northern Alliance -- loose association of groups that is against the Taliban, which is in Kabul and controls 90 percent of the country. This is the most serious stronghold of the Northern Alliance. There is an airfield there.

But as we said, that's a logical place for an airplane to land. Could there be a place on the steppe here, for example, that might have enough -- good enough soil conditions, for example, for a heavy aircraft to land? That would be one of the missions for special operations right now, to sort of stomp on the ground, if you will, and get a sense as to what might be an appropriate landing spot.

Let's bring in one of our military experts, Lieutenant (sic) General Don Sheppard, who's been listening to some of this.

General Sheppard, would you like to add anything to that discussion about special operations and what they might be doing at this stage of the game?

MAJ. GEN. DONALD SHEPPARD (RET.), U.S. AIR FORCE: Well, Miles, your reporting is excellent and right on the money. What those people do is exactly what you have described: They sit and they watch quietly. These are the James Bonds and ninjas of the military. We really have people that do this. They're very good at it. And the other thing is that they have probably been there not just recently, but they've probably been there for years, establishing relationship that can be called upon later.

These are very, very versatile troops. They're experienced in what they do, and they are not going to be involved in big operations, but very quiet operations, gathering intelligence, establishing contact with the partisan groups and getting ready for bigger things that may come later.

O'BRIEN: So is it possible that the special operations people have been on the ground even before this? Is this something that -- particularly when you look at the fact that the British special operations might be involved as well -- could they have a long- standing background in this area, know the terrain, sort of know the players already?

SHEPPARD: That is their job, Miles. I would be very surprised if that had not happened. I would suspect that they have been there not for days or weeks, but for months and years. That's what these people do, and they're very, very good at it.

O'BRIEN: Tell me about the language skills of these teams. Is the language skill such that they can infiltrate well and make contacts with, perhaps, some locals who could be helpful to them?

SHEPPARD: They look for people that have these language skills in the special forces. They even seek out people to put in special forces because of their language skills. But also they develop relationships, and they have translators; language is not really a problem.

O'BRIEN: All right, now at this stage of game, general, would it be unlikely in your mind that any sort of special operations team would be sort of seeking out, perhaps, a cave dwelling where a terrorist cell might be operating? That's a bit provocative at this juncture, isn't it?

SHEPPARD: Well, you don't -- even though we have these small teams that do things of that sort, you don't want to put them in danger and waste their lives. I would be surprised if there's anybody, right now, very close to bin Laden. But they are getting the big picture -- the big picture, so we can use all the weapons at our disposal -- small teams all the way to missiles. They're gathering that intelligence picture for things they may need to do later.

O'BRIEN: General Don Sheppard, one of our military analysts; thanks, as always, for your insights. We appreciate it.

So special operations on the ground, as we say, for most military folks that is not a surprise. The goal right now is to literally get the lay of the land, and most importantly get the lay of the land without being detected -- John.

KING: Thank you Miles O'Brien in Atlanta.




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