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U.S. Steps Up Second Installment Of Attacks on Taliban Government

By Vernon Loeb
THE WASHINGTON POST -- U.S. warplanes struck targets across Afghanistan Monday in the heaviest day of bombing since the air campaign began as huge explosions rocked the Afghan capital of Kabul and an Air Force AC-130 gunship fired on the Taliban stronghold of Kandahar, Pentagon officials said.

Fifty carrier-based fighter jets and 10 long-range bombers, joined for the first time by the AC-130, one of the most devastating weapons in the U.S. air arsenal, struck targets throughout the day and into the night, aided in part by what Pentagon officials said was fresh information on Taliban and terrorist positions provided by opposition forces.

Defense officials declined to disclose the AC-130’s mission around Kandahar, a city in southern Afghanistan that is one of the centers of power for the Taliban, the Islamic militia that rules most of the country.

Although the pace of daily U.S. airstrikes against Afghanistan has not matched previous campaigns against Yugoslavia and Iraq, the attacks Monday represented a marked escalation in the nine-day-old anti-terrorism war and signaled it could be entering a new phase.

The Pentagon also moved forcefully on another front -- the emerging war of information with the Taliban over the extent of civilian casualties and damage from the U.S. airstrikes.

As protests in Pakistan and elsewhere in the Islamic world over the conduct of the U.S. campaign mounted, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said U.S. forces had begun dropping leaflets over Afghanistan -- in the local languages of Pashtu and Dari -- along with humanitarian food packets.

Rumsfeld said Taliban charges that errant U.S. bombs have killed 300 civilians, including 200 in the eastern village of Karam, were “ridiculous.” But he acknowledged that the United States has failed to justify the reasons for its anti-terrorism campaign with clarity with Muslims in the Middle East, South Asia and elsewhere.

While the Pentagon asserts that most fixed targets associated with the Taliban and al Qaeda have now been destroyed, Rumsfeld and other senior defense officials said the pace of air strikes would not diminish. They said U.S. pilots would begin turning their sights on troop concentration and other “emerging targets.”

Rumsfeld said that recent targets were “significantly enhanced” by information from Afghan opposition forces and had included Taliban troop concentrations for the last three or four days.

Military commanders from the Northern Alliance, a coalition of opposition forces that occupies parts of northern Afghanistan, have complained in recent days that the United States has not bombed Taliban troops dug in north of Kabul in defense of the capital. Rumsfeld attributed the lack of strikes to a dearth of reliable target information and implied that bombing raids against those forces were imminent.

One U.S. official, who asked not to be quoted by name, said officials planning the air campaign are in direct contact with the Northern Alliance, among other opposition groups. “Some of the information from the Northern Alliance has not been particularly useful, which may explain why there may have been a lack of activity in certain areas,” the official said.

Another senior defense official said that targeting has shifted from a relatively small number of “strategic” targets such as surface-to-air missile sites to an “unlimited” number of Taliban troop concentrations.