The Ground War: Into The Fray

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

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American officials are also worried that the special forces may come under fire at the point of attack. The MC-130 Combat Talons that drop commandos and the AC-130 Spectre gunships that pulverize anyone standing in their way may still have to dodge the Taliban's 200 antiaircraft Stinger missiles left over from the Afghans' war against the Soviets. Last week there were no reports of Stingers being fired at U.S. warplanes, but that wasn't necessarily good news. "Our concern," an Army officer says, "is that they may be saving them for the choppers." Despite their firepower, special-ops troops are also vulnerable to the unforeseen hazards of combat. A ground raid planned for early last week near Kabul was scrapped because of a dust storm.

For days Administration officials and military commanders hinted that ground troops were about to move. The number of U.S. warplanes in the skies above Afghanistan last week doubled to about 100 a day, but it had been clear from the beginning that air strikes alone wouldn't budge the Taliban or get Washington closer to bin Laden. With fixed military targets dwindling and reports of civilian casualties mounting, American and British leaders started to catch heat in the Arab world and within their own governments for failing to conjure up a strategy beyond bombing Afghanistan into whatever came before the Stone Age. Airdrops of food and leaflets and transistor radios intended to assist the Northern Alliance and turn ordinary Afghans against the Taliban have not had the desired effect. In Peshawar, an expert on the region said one leaflet warning the Taliban of the deadliness of American bombs ("We'll put it right through your window") only incited them more. "We're losing the war of public opinion, the hearts and minds," grumbled a senior Pentagon official. "The Islamic world day by day is growing more angry and skeptical." Then there was the anthrax scare at home. While not the sole trigger, it made a decisive show of force abroad seem more urgent. "It's symbolically time to do more," a State Department official said early in the week.

Anyone wondering whether that meant ground troops needed only to spot the AC-130 gunships that had started flying lazy circles over Afghanistan, hammering targets below at will. If the skies were safe for AC-130s, it followed that low-flying choppers could deliver commandos into enemy territory. Inside the Pentagon, military planners conceded that the air war was producing diminishing returns. And so Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld began dishing out the rhetoric. On Monday he stressed that American forces should "develop relationships" with anti-Taliban forces on the ground. B-52s "are powerful and can do certain things within reasonable degrees of accuracy," noted Rumsfeld, "[but] they can't crawl around on the ground and find people." The next day the Defense Secretary went to Whiteman Air Force base in Missouri as reports flew that special forces were already on the ground. His hints were as broad as the grin he flashed when servicemen bellowed training chants behind him. "The safest way one can deal with an issue like that is not to get involved in discussing it," he said before turning to Missouri Congressman Ike Skelton and suggesting they eat lunch. On the other side of the world, crew chiefs made final walkarounds of the helicopters, listening for signs of mechanical trouble. When they heard nothing, they gave their pilots a thumbs-up.

"Your mission is difficult," Rumsfeld told the 2,000 airmen and women in Missouri. "Our enemies live in caves and shadows." U.S. and British special-ops forces don't just face treacherous, mine-riddled terrain. They will have to confront wily, weathered adversaries in a place where it's often impossible to tell who's on your side. "These folks are pros. They're clever. They've been around a long time," says Rumsfeld. "They've probably changed sides three or four times, and may again." The Taliban has also shown an ability to withstand hits against strongholds and replenish its forces. The U.S. has cratered many runways in Afghanistan, destroyed more than a dozen Taliban airplanes and helicopters and eviscerated the regime's air defenses. But sources inside Afghanistan say the Taliban's military has not been mortally degraded. And while Rumsfeld said, "we do see snippets of intelligence information suggesting part of the Taliban is starting to decide that they'd prefer not to be part of the Taliban," there were also signs that some are committed to fight to their death. Young militants streamed across the Pakistani border near Chaman hoping to join the fight. At the strategic northern town of Mazar-i-Sharif, Taliban fighters waged pitched battles against the local opposition forces of the Northern Alliance. "The morale of the Taliban is fine," an Afghan aid worker from Kabul told TIME. "In face of rockets and bombing, the Taliban are humble. But they feel they are capable of handling anything the Americans can do on the ground."

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