Defense officials say the military portion of the U.S.-led anti-terrorism campaign now under way in Afghanistan is proceeding according to plan and making progress. The Pentagon appears confident about its strategy and the eventual outcome despite a host of important, unanswered questions.
The U.S.-led military operation is just about four weeks old. Yet, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld says progress is being made day-in and day-out as air-strikes pound away at Taleban and al-Qaida targets, even those hidden away in caves, tunnels, and bunkers.
Mr. Rumsfeld says since the campaign got under way, the Pentagon has been pursuing a three-step strategy. "First, we wanted to clear out the air defenses and the aircraft to the extent we could, so we could operate over the country at some altitude successfully. Second, we hit a broad range of targets - military targets, command and control, airports and the like, airfields. And third, we have been concentrating on the forces that are opposing the Northern Alliance and other ground forces that oppose Taleban and al-Qaida," the defense secretary said.
Mr. Rumsfeld says the campaign is still in that third phase, assisting the opposition. The reason, he says, is that it has taken time to get U.S. liaison forces on the ground with some of the opposition groups to assist in target selection.
He says the Pentagon wants to increase the number of these special forces three-or-four-fold as soon as possible. "Now, the reason they are - were in that phase was, and they still are in that phase - we're spending, as I think I've indicated, something like 80 percent of our effort on forces opposing the Taleban. The reason we did it in that sequence is because we did not have people on the ground who could help with the targeting. And we do now have some, not - nowhere near as many as we need, and not with all of the elements that are opposing Taleban and al-Qaida. And so the best work is being done where we do have those special forces on the ground," Mr. Rumsfeld said.
To support the opposition Northern Alliance and other resistance groups, the Pentagon is also air-dropping ammunition and other supplies. Mr. Rumsfeld says that support effort is moving ahead as quickly as possible but has been constrained by concerns that some Afghan groups might try to take advantage of the situation.
"We are supplying ammunition and supplies to the Northern Alliance and to other forces opposing them as fast as we can. And to the extent we have a chance to find out about these people, whether or not they're a people who are going to do anything with the ammunition other than sell it, which is always nice to know - it's preferable that it ends up in a weapon and is shot," he said. "There are a series of steps that need to be taken. You just don't load up an airplane and start dropping it out from the sky in parachutes for people that you have not developed some sort of a relationship with, some sense of whether or not they're going to actually do something with that," he said.
But Mr. Rumsfeld makes clear, the aid, whether in the form of military supplies or close-air support bombing raids, does not come with the price-tag of a commitment by resistance forces to follow U.S. commands. "These people have been fighting in that country for ages. You're not going to send a few people in and tell them they should turn right, turn left, go slow, or go fast. They know their own minds, and they're going to move when they think it makes sense," he said. "And they've survived over the years, and it will remain to be seen if and when they actually decide to go forward. But there is no question but that we are providing significant assistance from the air for the forces where we have people on the ground."
U.S. officials are not troubled by the inherent uncertainty of leaving ground advances up to the opposition. They believe the Taleban and al-Qaida forces will crumble from the combined pressure of U.S. air-strikes and the mere knowledge that opposition groups are growing in military strength, along with such additional internal pressures as defections, interrupted communications between leaders and field units, and growing popular dissent.
In the best case scenario, Pentagon officials say there may not be a need to deploy U.S. ground forces in substantial numbers.
Yet, if the best case does not materialize, they say the deployment of large numbers of ground troops cannot be ruled out. In general, these officials say they have plotted out multiple courses of action depending on how events unfold.
Still, there is a pervasive sense of optimism. Mr. Rumsfeld says in past wars, enemy commanders have come to doubt the wisdom of taking on the strength and power of the United States and the American people. He says he suspects that somewhere in a cave in Afghanistan there is now a terrorist considering precisely the same thing.