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U.S. Special Forces Begin War On Terrorism in Afghanistan

By Thomas E. Ricks

and Vernon Loeb
THE WASHINGTON POST -- WASHINGTON

U.S. special forces have begun the ground phase of America’s war against terrorism in Afghanistan, operating in small numbers in southern Afghanistan in support of the CIA’s existing effort in the Taliban heartland, defense officials said Thursday.

Their presence on the battlefield comes amid growing indications that the war’s intensity is about to increase dramatically after 11 days of U.S. and British airstrikes that Pentagon officials say have pummeled the defenses of Afghanistan’s ruling Taliban militia.

The number of U.S. personnel on the ground is just a handful now and is unlikely to ever resemble the large number of conventional forces assembled in the Persian Gulf War a decade ago, defense officials said. But their presence marks a turning point in only the second week of the conflict, heightening the risk to U.S. forces and underscoring the seriousness of the Bush administration’s commitment to prosecuting its war against terrorism.

The new special forces mission in southern Afghanistan is designed to expand an ongoing CIA effort in the region to encourage ethnic Pashtun leaders to break away from the Taliban militia, a senior defense official said.

But another official said additional special forces are likely to be deployed soon, and could take on other missions such as reconaissance, target designation for aircraft and, on rare occasions, direct attacks on Taliban or terrorist leaders.

Disclosure of the new special forces mission came on a day when a number of prominent officials commented on the inevitability of ground groups.

Speaking in London, British Prime Minister Tony Blair said “the next few weeks will be the most testing time but we are on track to achieve the goals we set out.” He added: “I don’t think we have ever contemplated this being done by air power alone.”

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, briefing reporters at the Pentagon, declined to comment on the presence of special forces in Afghanistan “until we have an activity that is significant and noticeable.” Rumsfeld noted that aircraft “cannot really do sufficient damage; They can’t crawl around on the ground and find people.”

Joining Rumsfeld at the rostrum, Air Force Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, added: “We are prepared to use the full spectrum of our military capabilities. That’s not just bombers or carrier-based aircraft; that’s other assets as well.”

Myers concluded with a direct appeal to all U.S. military forces and the American people. “I firmly believe that this is the most important task that the U.S. military has been handed since the Second World War,” said Myers, a fighter pilot who flew 600 combat hours over Vietnam. “And what’s at stake here is no less than our freedom to exist as an American people. ... So to every soldier, sailor, airmen, Marine, and Coast Guardsmen, and DOD civilian, and our allies and friends, I say, ‘Let’s stay ready, let’s stay focused.”’

As Myers and Rumsfeld hinted at the impending ground war, EC-130 “Commando Solo” psychological operations aircraft filled the airwaves of Afghanistan with instructions to civilians to follow when U.S. troops arrive.