What's New About U.S. Troops in Afghanistan?

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US Military Special Forces are expected to play a major role

TIME.com: Do reports that U.S. special forces are now operating inside Afghanistan signal a gear shift in the war?

Mark Thompson: No. As the Pentagon said in response to those reports, there's nothing new there. U.S. ground troops have been in and out of Afghanistan for a considerable period of time. Now that the U.S.S. Kittyhawk is in place in the Arabian Sea, we've begun ferrying in small numbers of U.S. special forces to do in southern Afghanistan to do what we've been doing in northern Afghanistan for weeks — liaison with local anti-Taliban forces, trying to turn their knowledge into our intelligence regarding potential targets, potential political splits and the whereabouts of al-Qaeda and the Taliban.

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But to my knowledge, our ground forces there have taken no direct action yet. And if it happens, of course, we may not know about it. U.S. troops could already be firing weapons on Afghan soil, and we might not know about it. Of course, the Pentagon has already told us that if a U.S. special forces soldier is killed, they will inform the media in a timely manner once the next of kin have been informed. So if we take them at their word, which can be risky, there have been no U.S. fatalities on the ground in Afghanistan to date. And that suggests there haven't been any major firefights or anything of that nature.

The challenge facing the administration, from a PR point of view, is if all you've got is a handful of people in Afghanistan, how do you demonstrate to the American public that you're bringing this war into the living rooms and dens and caves of terrorists living in Afghanistan. Because the public is hungry for action.

So how can Washington feed the American public's hunger for action?

I don't know the answer. It's difficult for anyone to verify anything they're being told about what's happening on the ground in Afghanistan. As long as there aren't any more terrorist attacks, the public will likely remain satisfied with the course being charted by the administration. But public ire and anger would go off the charts if there were another horrendous attack any time soon. Right now, U.S. public doesn't know any better than the Bush administration how to handle this. So they're keeping their fingers crossed and hoping that their leaders know what they're doing. Hopefully they will remain calm long enough to allow the current operation in Afghanistan to achieve its goals. But the public's calm won't last forever.

What is happening on the two major Northern Alliance fronts, at Mazari al-Sharif and north of Kabul?

Up at Mazari el Sharif, the rebels aren't doing as well as we thought. It's not a slide, it's a see saw. One day they're up, the next day they're down. For a week we've been hearing that it's only a matter of days before the city falls to the Northern Alliance, but it hasn't fallen yet.

On Kabul, it's been made very clear that the U.S. doesn't want the Alliance on the streets of Kabul, and the movement's officials agree. They're saying they simply want to tighten the noose on Kabul, and will only go in one an interim provisional government is ready to replace the Taliban.

Wouldn't the reasons for wanting to keep the Northern Alliance out of Kabul right now — that they're an armed force representing only a section of Afghanistan's ethnically divided population — apply in the future as well?

But they are the force that's going to actually dislodge the Taliban. And Kabul is the capital of the country. Still, it is very complex — the Northern Alliance doesn't want any Taliban elements in the post-Taliban government, and there are going to have to be negotiations to work this out, because it may be impossible to create a stable government without some form of retreaded, moderate version of the Taliban having a stake. The Taliban are from the Pashtun group, which at 38 percent of the population is the largest ethnic group in Afghanistan. Right now the U.S. is looking to find Pashtun groups who are not with the Taliban and work with those.

What is the outlook for peacekeeping in Afghanistan if and when the Taliban falls?

Plainly the U.S. is thinking the UN is going to be pretty helpful here. The peacekeeping troops would have to Muslim. It could be the Pakistanis in the south and the Turks in the north, or some similar arrangement. It's very likely to be troops from the region, operating under a U.N. flag and mandate and perhaps even with commanders from other countries. Some of the countries of the region have had a hand in the civil war, and you have to be very careful when you involve former antagonists in peacekeeping. But it beats having Brits or Danes try to do the job.