Hundreds of U.S. Marines landed in southern Afghanistan on 26 November -- the war's first deployment of traditional American ground forces. Analysts say that while the Marines can be used for a variety of tasks, their first aim is likely to be the capture of Kandahar. But as our correspondent Jeffrey Donovan reports, taking the Taliban's spiritual capital is no small task.
Washington, 27 November 2001 (RFE/RL) -- American defense analysts say the first deployment of traditional U.S. ground troops marks a new phase in the war in Afghanistan whose immediate aim is the capture of Kandahar, the last stronghold of the Taliban militia.
Some 500 troops of two Marine Expeditionary Units (MEU) -- continuously forward-deployed units of the U.S. Marines -- set up a forward base at an airstrip within striking distance of Kandahar yesterday after being ferried into the country by helicopters from ships in the Arabian Sea.
Using Cobra attack helicopters, the Marines reportedly fired on a Taliban convoy of tanks and fighting vehicles after it appeared to be heading toward their newly-seized airstrip. Some Taliban vehicles were destroyed, officials said, but the operation was still going on after nearly four hours.
Until now, U.S. and British troop presence in Afghanistan had been limited to a few hundred special forces. But U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld told a news conference in Washington yesterday that more than 1,000 Marines may be deployed near Kandahar, the spiritual capital of the Taliban where the forces of Mohammed Omar are reportedly making their last stand: "Some U.S. Marines are now on the ground in the southern portion of Afghanistan. More are joining them. They are not an occupying force. Their purpose is to establish a forward base of operations to help pressure the Taliban forces in Afghanistan, to prevent Taliban and Al-Qaeda terrorists from moving freely about the country."
Rumsfeld added that one of the key reasons behind the Marine deployment was to enable troops to patrol and interdict traffic along vital transportation routes in and out of the country from Kandahar.
But while Rumsfeld would not comment further on the Marines' mission, analysts interviewed by RFE/RL said the troops' first objective is likely to be the capture of Kandahar, which is the last Taliban-held area following the fall yesterday of the northern city of Kondoz.
Former Army Colonel William Taylor is a senior security adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank. Taylor predicted that the light infantry units -- capable of special operations as well as urban and guerrilla warfare, and backed up by massive airpower -- will swiftly finish off the Taliban at Kandahar by striking the militia at its weakest point. Taylor described the Marines' mission as "[finding] the critical mass of the Taliban militia in and around Kandahar -- the critical mass that the Pashtun tribe militias can't punch through -- and [massing] those Marine forces at those particular points and [crashing] right on through." He added: "The Taliban's not going to be able to do a damn thing to stop them."
But General Richard Myers, America's top military official, was more restrained in his view. Myers said yesterday that he expects a "fight to the end" as Omar and the Taliban troops loyal to him are unlikely to surrender Kandahar. Myers would not speculate on the number of Taliban set to defend the city, but some reports put it at 20,000.
And President George W. Bush said the deployment of the amphibious Marine units, which have been traditionally relied on in most American military conflicts of the past two decades, marked the start of a new phase in the war -- a phase Bush said is likely to bring U.S. casualties: "I said this early on, as the campaign began, America must be prepared for loss of life. I believe the American people understand that we have got a mighty struggle on our hands and that there will be sacrifice."
The Pentagon has not confirmed that any Americans have been killed so far inside Afghanistan. But a U.S. official said today that at least one CIA operative is "unaccounted for" after being trapped in the 25 November prison uprising near Mazar-i-Sharif. A "Time" magazine reporter who was at the prison said an American man was killed in the uprising.
Five members of the U.S. special forces also were injured at the prison yesterday while trying to help quell the uprising. They were evacuated to Uzbekistan and are being flown today to a hospital in Ramstein, Germany. Those soldiers were injured by a U.S. bomb that went astray and exploded near them.
Analyst Taylor said the Marines could be used in a variety of other missions. These included, as Rumsfeld himself suggested, "crawling around" in the country's cave areas to seek out the forces of Al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden, the suspected mastermind of the 11 September terrorist attacks on the U.S.
Taylor said the Marines could also be used to cordon off areas for further U.S. air strikes, to call in such strikes, to set up road blocks, and to give backing, for example, to small groups of Special Operations forces making a search-and-destroy mission of enemy troops in and around Kandahar.
The U.S. military has traditionally relied on the Marines as a first-line force in war. Analysts say the Marine expeditionary forces have seen regular action over the last two decades -- from Beirut and Grenada in the early 1980s to the Persian Gulf, Somalia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Kosovo in the 1990s.