U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has for the first time openly acknowledged the presence of U.S. ground forces operating with opposition groups inside Afghanistan.
Pentagon officials have in the past hinted at the presence of American combat soldiers on the ground inside Afghanistan. Now, Defense Secretary Rumsfeld has confirmed it, although he describes the number of troops involved as modest. "We do have some military people on the ground," he said Tuesday. "They are in the north and we have had others on the ground who have come in and out on the south. But the ones that are there are doing exactly what I said: they are uniformed military personnel who are assisting with resupply, assisting with communications, liaison, assisting with targeting, and providing the kind of very specific information which is helpful to the air effort. And because they are there now, the effort has improved in its effectiveness."
Mr. Rumsfeld also said U.S. air strikes are now overwhelmingly aimed at weakening Taleban forces arrayed in frontline positions against the opposition. He characterized overall U.S. assistance to the opposition along the frontlines as very aggressive.
Mr. Rumsfeld appeared before reporters at the Pentagon with visiting British Defense Secretary Geoff Hoon, whose country has been involved in the air campaign. The two were asked if they would consider a bombing pause during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. Mr. Hoon indicated it would be wrong to signal allied intentions in advance. "It certainly wouldn't make military sense to afford the Taleban regime which has been under very considerable pressure in recent times the opportunity of regrouping, reorganizing during a predictable period of time," he said. "That is not a sensible way to run a military operation."
Mr. Rumsfeld is, meanwhile, rejecting criticism from commentators that the current military campaign of air strikes is ineffective. But he is not ruling out an expanded role for American ground forces beyond their current liaison role. "It is true we do not have anything like the ground forces we had in World War II or in Korea or in the Gulf War, but nor have we ruled that out," he said.
In a related development, the Pentagon says air drops of humanitarian daily food rations to the Afghan people have now gone over the one million mark.