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U.S.: Pentagon Says Allies Gaining Air Supremacy

  • Andrew Tully

The Taliban may control virtually all of Afghanistan, but their arsenal is small and old -- most of it material left over from the Soviet occupation of the 1980s. So it is hardly surprising that U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld announced on 9 October that it had taken only two nights of air strikes led by U.S. forces to give allied air forces the ability to fly over the country unchallenged.

Washington/Islamabad, 10 October 2001 (RFE/RL) -- America's military leaders say it took only two days of air strikes to give allied forces virtual air supremacy in the skies over Afghanistan.

But the Taliban's ambassador to Pakistan insists the regime's air-defense system has not been destroyed, saying U.S. aircraft are flying at high altitudes to avoid anti-aircraft artillery.

Beginning the night of 7 October, U.S. forces, with the help of Britain, have been attacking what they say are terrorist training camps of Osama bin Laden's Al-Qaeda network in Afghanistan and the air defenses of the Taliban, the militia which controls much of the country.

Speaking at a Pentagon briefing yesterday in Washington, General Richard Myers, the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the American-led war on terrorism is going well so far.

"We did well in our initial strikes, damaging or destroying about 85 percent of the first set of 31 targets. But, as in any military operation, we were not perfect."

Defense Secretary Rumsfeld, who also appeared at the briefing, said that if the results were not perfect, they were good enough to give allied aircraft the ability to fly over Afghanistan virtually without challenge.

"We have struck several terrorist training camps, we've damaged most of the air fields -- I believe all but one, as well as their anti-aircraft radars and launchers. And with the success of previous raids, we believe we are now able to carry out strikes more or less around the clock, as we wish."

U.S. military aircraft flew their first daylight missions over Afghanistan yesterday. Until then, they had limited their flights to the hours of darkness.

Rumsfeld and Myers displayed enlargements of photos showing severe damage to air fields and facilities that they identified as terrorist training camps. But they refused to name the targets of yesterday's raids. However, reports from Afghanistan say anti-aircraft fire could be heard in the Afghan capital, Kabul, and the Taliban said bombs fell around their headquarters in Kandahar in the south and the northwestern city of Herat.

Meanwhile the Taliban ambassador to Pakistan, speaking in Islamabad, today denied Washington's claims that the regime's air-defense systems have been destroyed. Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef says that U.S. planes are flying only at high altitudes, so as to avoid intact Taliban anti-aircraft artillery.

Zaeef also said that Osama bin laden and Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar are both still alive. U.S. air raids today targeted Kandahar's airport and sites to the west of that city, where Omar has his residence, as well as around the capital Kabul.

Zaeef also said that Afghanistan's anti-Taliban Northern Alliance had failed to make any advances on the ground despite the bombing campaign. A Northern Alliance spokesman said earlier that the U.S. bombed Taliban frontline positions in Shakardara district north of Kabul overnight.

Rumsfeld and Myers were asked if the U.S. plans to help Afghanistan's Northern Alliance, which has been fighting to oust the Taliban. They replied that they could not reveal tactical details. Myers elaborated, saying that the goal of America and its coalition partners is to go after the Taliban, not necessarily to aid the Northern Alliance.

They also refused to say when or whether the antiterror coalition intends to deploy ground troops in Afghanistan. Later in the day, U.S. President George W. Bush was asked the same question. He replied simply: "I'm not going to tell you."

Before the allied strikes, the militia was believed to have about 15 fighter-bombers left over from the days of the Soviet occupation of the country. It also had several hundred tanks and armored vehicles.

During the briefing, Rumsfeld said he was confident of eventual success of the war, but added, as he has before, that the campaign will be long. And he appealed to the American public for patience.

Rumsfeld also said U.S. intelligence officials already are getting reports that the pressure of the air strikes is beginning to demoralize both the Taliban and Al-Qaeda. But he said that does not mean that members are defecting in large numbers.

The secretary also was asked about the deaths of four United Nations employees who served as guards for an agency that has been working to clear the many land mines in Afghanistan. The building housing the four guards was reportedly about 300 meters from an anti-aircraft station outside Kabul.

Rumsfeld said he could not confirm that U.S. or British explosives were responsible for their deaths. In fact, he said that even ammunition fired from the ground could have killed them. But he added:

"If there were an easy, safe way to root terrorist networks out of countries that are harboring them, it would be a blessing. But there is not. Coalition forces will continue to make every reasonable effort to select targets with the least possible unintended damage. But as in any conflict, there will be unintended damage."

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell said in Washington that the antiterrorism campaign "will really never stop in any of its phases" -- in military, financial or other ways.

Powell also responded to statements by a spokesman for Osama bin Laden's Al-Qaeda network warming Americans to expect a repeat of the 11 September attacks. Powell said the U.S. antiterrorism campaign would put a stop to such boasts.

The U.S. also says it is waging a continuing war on hunger in Afghanistan. At the State Department, spokesman Richard Boucher said yesterday that 165,000 tons of American wheat is in ships steaming to the region. He said American military aircraft also are continuing their drops of food over the country, and that land shipments of aid from the UN's World Food Program are being made as well.

"Furthermore, though, I'd point to substantial quantities of food that are still reaching Afghanistan by land. Three convoys of World Food Program trucks carrying 1,000 tons of wheat left from Pakistan and Turkmenistan on [7 October]. Two of those convoys have arrived in the Northwest and in Kabul; the third is expected to arrive in Herat by the end of the week. Today trucks loaded with a hundred tons of wheat left from Iran, headed towards Herat."

On the first two days of allied air strikes, U.S. military aircraft dropped more than 70 tons of ration kits to refugees in Afghanistan. The kits contain food, as well as leaflets and radios.

At the White House, Bush was asked if he believes Russia's military action in Chechnya is a war on terrorism not unlike the U.S.-led campaign that has begun in Afghanistan.

Bush replied that he has told Russian President Vladimir Putin that he appreciates Russia's support of the fight against international terrorism, and that Russia has a right to target terrorists on its territory.

"To the extent that there's Al-Qaeda organizations in his neighborhood, they need to be brought to justice as well. And we look forward to sharing information with him [Putin], just like he's sharing information with us."

But Bush said he also has told the Russian president that Moscow needs to respect the rights of its minorities.

Bush said he believes Putin personifies what he calls "a new attitude" in Russia that the Cold War is truly a thing of the past. Bush recalled that on 11 September, when he was airborne shortly after the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, one of the first calls he received was from Putin.

Bush noted that because of the acts of terror, he had put American forces on high alert. He said that, ordinarily, such an alert by U.S. forces is automatically mimicked by Russia because of the old enmity between America and the Soviet Union.

But Bush said Putin told him that he was easing the alert of Russian forces. The American president said this was a significant departure from the past.