'Marines' Mission is Bin Laden, not Kandahar'

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US Marines relax before the launch of their assault on Afganistan

TIME.com: Hundreds of Marines have landed near Kandahar and more are on their way. What is their mission?

Mark Thompson: Their first mission will be to take care of themselves. Whether they go in with 800 or 1500 troops, their first goal will be to establish perimeter security. I went into Kosovo with the Marines and it was interesting to see how they use their vehicles to form an outer perimeter within which they would live. Here they'll be living in some existing infrastructure at the airfield where they're landing rather than living out of their trucks. It's good that they're at an airfield, because that means high visibility over a greater distance. The geography is well suited to defense, because with a compactly held base you have a lot of warning time before a bad guy can get to you. The airfield also makes sustaining the U.S. personnel easier. They'll be able to use bigger aircraft rather than multiple helicopter flights.

As soon as they feel secure and up to speed, they'll begin launching missions. And those will be more robust than any we've seen before in this war. Instead of giving instructions, the Marines will be conducting operations themselves, and that will be only the second time in this conflict that U.S. forces have taken a direct combat role.

The reason they're doing this, make no mistake, is to get Osama bin Laden. There may be other things to take care of, but getting bin Laden is the key objective.

Does that mean taking towns such as Kandahar away from the Taliban will still be left to local forces?

That certainly is the Pentagon's preference. You want to send American troops in to do things that the locals can't do. There's a sense in the military that we're more eager to get Osama bin Laden than the locals are, which is why it may require U.S. troops. But you're going to have pockets of local trouble for weeks, even months, and it's apt to be bloody. The U.S. doesn't want to get too involved in that, particularly if the anti-Taliban forces are keeping up the pressure.

Some reports suggest the Marine deployment may be a sign that the U.S. now has a strong indication of bin Laden's whereabouts…

Possibly. But it could just as easily suggest they're desperate that he may be slipping from their grasp. So it's too soon to make that claim. As Secretary Rumsfeld says, we'll know where he is when we've got him. And the U.S. has had sufficient capability in the area for some time that if the military knew where bin Laden was, they could get him in two hours. Having a Marine base near Kandahar shortens the timeline required to get hundreds of men to his location if it becomes known.

Will this be a long-term deployment?

The Marines are never a long-term deployment. They're equipped and outfitted for 30 days. Plainly, they can stay longer, but it's not the Army that's going in here. As Rumsfeld has made clear, the U.S. has no desire to hang onto any piece of Afghan real estate. Once the mission is accomplished, they'll depart.

The Kosovo deployment you mentioned turned into a long-term peacekeeping mission for the U.S. military. Could that happen in Afghanistan?

Very unlikely. It's been made clear all along by people other than the U.S. that the peacekeeping duties should be undertaken principally by Muslim nations. And it has been made very clear by the Americans that U.S. forces are not likely to be used for this job.