The commander of the U.S. military campaign in Afghanistan has defended the effort, denying his war plan is too timid and voicing satisfaction at the progress achieved thus far. Army four-star General Tommy Franks is commander of the U.S. Central Command. The man in direct charge of the military operation under way in Afghanistan.
Making his first appearance at the Pentagon since U.S. air attacks began more than four-weeks ago, General Franks dismissed criticism that his war plan is not aggressive enough and taking is too much time.
"Do I believe that this campaign plan was too timid? Absolutely not. The campaign plan, which we have initiated, I will not say executed, but what we have initiated is precisely the plan that we intended to begin to initiate and as I said I am well satisfied with it," he said.
General Franks gave few details to support his assessment of the progress made so far. But he said heavy bombing by U.S. aircraft has taken a toll on Taleban forces. "What I can tell you, though, is that however many Taleban troops were in this at the beginning, that same number are not in this today," he said.
As for the U.S. backed opposition Northern Alliance, General Franks indicated its current efforts to seize control of the strategic Taleban-held northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif are crucial to efforts aimed at establishing a bridgehead inside Afghanistan - particularly for large-scale overland humanitarian aid deliveries.
"It is a bit early to characterize this as the success that will enable our establishment of the land bridge, so I am not prepared to do that right now, but, yes, there is a big fight that is going on in the vicinity of Mazar-e-Sharif," he said.
Although the U.S. effort, for the moment, relies heavily on the Northern Alliance for ground fighting, General Franks indicated U.S. forces may also be involved in covert activities beyond coordinating aid to the opposition and directing air-strikes.
General Franks declined to rule out the eventual deployment of large numbers of American soldiers - or troops from other countries that have offered them. "We will not take off of the table the possibility of the use of ground forces, not ours, and we will not take off the table the potential use of coalition-offered forces," he said.
Despite his generally upbeat assessment, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld appeared for the first time to flash a hint of possible impatience with the military effort.
Standing by General Franks' side, Mr. Rumsfeld said the greatest humanitarian aid that the United States and its allies can give the Afghan people would be to rid the country of the Taleban and its al-Qaida terrorist allies sooner rather than later. "Prolonging the war would only further oppress the Afghan people and strengthen the oppressors," he said.
Asked to clarify the Defense Secretary's unusual reference to prolonging the war, a senior Pentagon official said Mr. Rumsfeld was, in part, rebuffing suggestions of a bombing pause during the coming Muslim holy month of Ramadan.