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Reporters Struggle For Detailed Information About US Military Operations - 2001-11-10

Much about the U.S. military operation in Afghanistan is shrouded in secrecy - a sore point in the Pentagon's daily dealings with reporters.

Reporters are constantly pressing the Pentagon for more detailed information about the U.S. military operations now under way in Afghanistan.

But their questions are often brushed aside. Sometimes, officials say they cannot discuss operational matters for security reasons. On other occasions, they say this-or-that question deals with sensitive intelligence information. Occasionally they offer ambiguous replies, like telling reporters some actions will be visible while others will be covert.

And then, there are times when the Pentagon says it simply does not know something - a response that invariably meets with skepticism from reporters.

But remarks by a senior Pentagon official in an interview with a small group of radio reporters suggest the Pentagon may in fact know a lot less than some might imagine. Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz disclosed in the interview that there is no U.S. battle plan for the operation in Afghanistan spelling out specific goals at specific times. He said decisions are generally being made on a snap basis.

"We don't have a timetable. I mean, we really assess the situation literally on a daily basis, and you can only form judgments about what's taking place on a weekly or a monthly basis. This is a situation that shifts and goes up and down, back and forth. It's in the nature of this kind of warfare," he said.

Another apparent reason for the lack of certainty about events is that the United States is relying heavily on opposition groups like the Northern Alliance to do the fighting on the ground - even though it has no real control over their actions beyond providing aid in the form of bombing and supplies. "The focus of our strategy is clearly on enlisting as many Afghans as possible on our side to do their work and in the process help us achieve our objectives," Mr. Wolfowitz said.

The Deputy Defense Secretary denied this is a sign of U.S. reluctance to commit large numbers of ground forces to the campaign. He said that remains an option. But he also recalled history has not been kind to foreigners operating in Afghanistan.

"It's not a matter of reluctance or unwillingness to use American forces and, as the Secretary [Rumsfeld] has said, we have all options on the table. But the point is as other people have learned in the past, Afghanistan is not a country that is particularly friendly to foreigners and we do not want to become the next bunch of foreigners that have problems after they achieve some initial success," he said.

So Mr. Wolfowitz, like other top Pentagon officials, urged patience - a commodity usually in short supply among reporters.