Marines enter Afghanistan to cut off escape routes, intensify the hunt for terrorist leaders

Monday, November 26th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ The mission of the U.S. Marines in Afghanistan is to cut off escape routes for Taliban and al-Qaida leaders, pinpoint targets for airstrikes and conduct quick strikes when the chance arises.

At a Pentagon news conference, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said Monday the Marines have been sent in to ``help pressure the Taliban forces in Afghanistan, to prevent Taliban and al-Qaida terrorists from moving freely about the country.'' He said the Marines would number in the ``hundreds, not thousands.''

Others said about 1,000 Marines would be involved. The last time that many had been put on the ground in a war zone was in the 1991 Gulf War, although Marines played a role in Somalia in 1993 as well as in Balkans peacekeeping operations.

The Pentagon, meanwhile, said five U.S. military members suffered serious injuries Monday when a U.S. attack plane mistakenly dropped a bomb on them near Mazar-e-Sharif in northern Afghanistan. A Pentagon statement said the injuries were not life-threatening and the five were being evacuated to Landstuhl Medical Center in Ramstein, Germany. Their names were not released.

Rumsfeld was reluctant to discuss the Marines' role in detail, but it appeared they may not be a traditional ground force that seeks contact with enemy troops _ like the Marines' Gulf War push into Kuwait to oust an occupying Iraqi army.

Instead, after establishing their base in the vicinity of Kandahar, they may focus mainly on blocking roadways leading away from the city _ rather than assault the city itself in search of fighters. In this way they could make it harder for enemy forces to resupply, regroup or escape across the Pakistani border.

In an early indication of their role, Marine Cobra helicopters participated in an airstrike on an armored column near their new base. Although the helicopters did not fire on the vehicles _ Navy F-14 Tomcat jets did _ they were in the area and ready to fire if needed, said Maj. Brad Lowell, a spokesman for U.S. Central Command.

It is the Marines' training in the coordinated use of ground and air power that makes them especially useful in this kind of war.

The Marines also emphasize special operations missions including hostage rescue, demolition, counterterrorism and recovery of downed aircraft.

They join several hundred U.S. Army and Air Force special operations troops who have been working alongside anti-Taliban forces throughout Afghanistan _ most effectively in the north _ for weeks.

Gen. Tommy Franks, commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, wanted the Marines in southern Afghanistan as part of a broader strategy of blocking roadways, Rumsfeld said.

Rumsfeld stressed that the Marine base could be used for a variety of missions.

``You could use it for humanitarian purposes; you could use it for special operations; you could use it, as some of the questions have suggested, for the inflow of additional troops,'' he said.

Marines have flown F/A-18 and EA-6B Harrier attack missions over Afghanistan from carriers in the Arabian Sea, and they recovered a downed U.S. helicopter in Pakistan, but this is their ground combat debut in Afghanistan.

An initial group of about 500 Marines arrived at an airfield near the southern city of Kandahar, and a like number were to join them, officials said. They flew from Navy ships in the Arabian Sea and are members of two Marine Expeditionary Units _ the 15th from Camp Pendleton, Calif., and the 26th from Camp Lejeune, N.C.

Each Marine Expeditionary Unit has about 2,100 Marines aboard ships. About half of them are ground troops; the rest are aviators, support forces and command elements.

Rumsfeld said Franks believed it would be useful to have a fixed base in the south rather than rely strictly on in-and-out special operations troops. Kandahar is the last major Taliban and al-Qaida holdout in Afghanistan, although there are still pockets of resistance elsewhere; both Rumsfeld and President Bush made a point of saying on Monday that the fighting there is far from over.

``This is a dangerous period of time,'' Bush said. ``This is a period of time in which we're now hunting down the people who are responsible for bombing Americans. I said a long time ago, one of our objectives is to smoke them out and get them running and bring them to justice. We're smoking them out, they're running, and now we're going to bring them to justice.''

The Senate Armed Services Committee's top leaders told reporters Monday that U.S. military officials are offering different estimates of how long it will take to destroy the al-Qaida network. Sen. John Warner, R-Va., and Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., said the estimates range from weeks to months.

Warner and Levin spent last week visiting U.S. troops in Uzbekistan, Pakistan, Oman, Bosnia and Hungary.