U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said Thursday that opposition forces are making progress in their effort to unseat the Taleban leadership in Afghanistan and root out al-Qaida terrorists linked to last month's bloody attacks on New York and Washington.
Mr. Rumsfeld also offered his most explicit statement yet of U.S. support for the opposition. He said he will not rule out the eventual use of American combat units inside Afghanistan to help root out al-Qaida terrorists and their Taleban supporters.
But he told reporters at the Pentagon, the Bush administration is pleased with the efforts of anti-Taleban opposition forces already fighting on the ground. "We are encouraged by the progress that's being made by the forces on the ground and hopeful they'll be successful," the secretary said.
In his most explicit statement yet of U.S. support, Mr. Rumsfeld said the United States and its allies in the global anti-terrorism campaign are providing assistance to the opposition. He said the assistance includes military supplies such as ammunition, food and close air support for opposition soldiers attacking Taleban and al-Qaida positions.
"We are delighted to be helpful in a variety of different ways to forces on the ground that are doing what we believe is in the best interests of the Afghan people and the country and that is to help root out the terrorists and foreign invaders and the Taleban that have been supporting those people," the secretary said.
Mr. Rumsfeld said U.S. air strikes appear to be unsettling the Taleban and al-Quaida, prompting defections to opposition forces like the Northern Alliance.
But Mr. Rumsfeld said Taleban and al-Qaida leaders are also now taking advantage of U.S. efforts to avoid hitting civilian targets in the ongoing air campaign in Afghanistan.
He indicated the United States has intercepted ground communications in which Taleban and al-Qaida leaders have been heard discussing such tactics as hiding in mosques. "There's no question but that the al-Qaida and the Taleban are using mosques, they're using heavily populated areas for their command and control and their gathering places purposely," the secretary said.
Mr. Rumsfeld also accused the Taleban and al-Qaida of taking emergency international food assistance from the Afghan civilians it is intended for.