The Ground War: Into The Fray

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U.S. special forces seen inside a building believed to be near Kandahar

Every war has its fateful pivot, when the high-altitude bombs lose their persuasive power and politics becomes a sideshow, when soldiers must hit the ground and fight and everyone else braces for something terrible. This war turned last Thursday night. Throughout the day, combat helicopters had carried U.S. special-operations troops ashore from the U.S.S. Kitty Hawk, anchored in the Arabian Sea off the southern coast of Pakistan. The forces choppered over miles of desert terrain to an airstrip at Dalbandin, close to Pakistan's secret underground nuclear-test site and just south of the Afghan border. There they prepared to be delivered into Taliban-controlled territory in Afghanistan to begin a furtive ground war in which no one knew exactly what came next.

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The new stage of the war may have been prompted by a tidy piece of intelligence work. On Friday morning, Pakistani intelligence sources tell TIME, the Taliban eminence Mullah Mohammed Omar arrived in Kandahar, the regime's stronghold in southern Afghanistan. He had spent days holed up in a mountain fortress ducking U.S. bombs, and in the meantime his regime had been pummeled. When he got back to Kandahar, Omar fired two faithless deputies and passed the word that he would deliver the noon sermon at the Halqa Cherif mosque. The mosque houses a robe said to have belonged to the Prophet Muhammad, so Omar must have figured the Americans would never bomb it. U.S. commanders may have known he was there. An eyewitness told TIME that American warplanes blitzed a convoy that may have been shepherding Omar as it left Kandahar, killing several Taliban bodyguards.

Hours later, more than 100 American commandos--led by Army Rangers--lifted off in helicopters and MC-130 Combat Talon planes from bases in southern Pakistan and Oman. A military cameraman videotaped the special forces donning fatigues (the camera zoomed in on a photo of New York fire fighters that commandos had packed in their gear to leave at their destinations), boarding aircraft and leaping out in Afghanistan. While a group of commandos seized a dry-lake airstrip some 100 miles southwest of Kandahar, other troops headed to Kandahar itself in pursuit of Omar and one of his command centers. The special forces didn't manage to snare Omar, but Pentagon officials said U.S. troops gathered valuable intelligence and destroyed a small-weapons stockpile at the airfield.

But not surprisingly, the Taliban has a different story. A Taliban soldier, Abdu Rahman, 30, told TIME that two combat helicopters arrived before dawn Saturday in the desert 10 miles east of Kandahar. As one hovered overhead, a few commandos poured out of the second gunship. Hundreds of Taliban fighters, who had responded to the earsplitting whir of the choppers, were crouching in the darkness. "We were ordered to wait until the Americans came closer. But nobody listened. We were all firing," Rahman says. The American forces "flew off like sparrows."

The Pentagon denies the Taliban's reports, but there were certainly other hazards. Returning from its mission and attempting to land in pitch blackness, one Black Hawk helicopter got caught on a sand dune near the Dalbandin runway, lost its balance and flopped over, killing two crew members and injuring three others, according to a Pakistani witness. American servicemen who returned safely to Dalbandin were so jittery that they refused to brief Pakistani military officers unless the officers removed their gun holsters before approaching the helicopters. Elsewhere in Afghanistan, bands of U.S. troops continued their covert search-and-destroy missions. The ground war was a day old.

The aims of this campaign have been no big secret--decapitate the Taliban, eliminate al-Qaeda's terror apparatus and seize Osama bin Laden. Administration insiders call the strategy "Taliban plinking" (echoing the "tank plinking" of the Gulf War): special forces plan to pick off one individual at a time, starting with Mullah Omar and working down the command chain of Taliban leaders protecting bin Laden. The first wave of lightning special-ops strikes was, as much as anything else, a psychological weapon designed to boost American spirits and faith in the government, silence suspicions that the public might go wobbly after seeing American blood shed, and send a message of ruthless resolve that can be heard in Afghanistan's deepest caves. In that sense, it also marked a beginning. So be prepared: after two weeks of heavy, mostly accurate yet increasingly irrelevant American air strikes, the war's pace and brutality will ratchet up fast--and so will the body count.

According to U.S. intelligence, chasing the Taliban and al-Qaeda will likely draw special-forces commandos into combat in the warrens of fortified underground tunnels and facilities scattered all over Afghanistan, from the Taliban strongholds Kandahar and Kabul in the east to Herat, near the country's western border with Iran. Many of the tunnels and bunkers were dug during the Afghan war with the Soviet Union but have been upgraded since a U.S. cruise-missile strike against al-Qaeda in 1998. U.S. soldiers have the military technology, such as night-vision goggles and breathing devices, to operate in this underground labyrinth, and U.S. bombers have pounded the network. But U.S. troops could face fearsome resistance once they actually venture down there. A former mujahedin commander based in Kandahar told TIME that one possible target would be a mountain complex in southwestern Afghanistan, built by bin Laden as an al-Qaeda base because of its proximity to the Pakistani border. The camp is nestled in a canyon lined with gunners--reportedly Sudanese--who are fiercely loyal to bin Laden. "The Americans are crazy to go in there," says the Afghan vet. "The Arabs are everywhere. It's like a scorpions' nest."

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