Send in the Marines?

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A Marine Humvee kicks up dust as it leaves on patrol

The assault on Kandahar — last of the Taliban strongholds in southern Afghanistan — is coming soon. The Marines are on the ground, holding down the airfield outside the city with help Army, Navy and Air Force personnel. U.S. bombing raids Sunday and Monday succeeded in destroying all but one route in and out. Equipment is pouring in. And in Washington, Donald Rumsfeld used another Sunday-talkie appearance to warn Americans that their sons and daughters in uniform are "entering a very dangerous aspect of this conflict." In other words, prepare for casualties.

Is the U.S. really about to change its winning formula — let the Northern Alliances fight the ground war while U.S. bombers provide safe support from the skies — and send in the Marines to fight a ground battle for Kandahar? TIME Pentagon correspondent Mark Thompson weighs in.

[an error occurred while processing this directive]Is the U.S. really going to send in the Marines to help the anti-Taliban forces take Kandahar?

Mark Thompson: Thereís certainly a lot of talk about it, but it doesnít seem to make much sense to me, according to what Iíve heard. First, thereís only 1,200 or so of them there — not really the size that youíd expect to be a part of a vanguard assault on the city. As one official put it, "thatís enough to get into trouble, but not enough to get out." In other words, you donít want to cross that Mogadishu line where youíve got U.S. forces stuck in the middle of a disaster without sufficient support.

Second, thereís not really a time element here. What does it matter if Kandahar falls next week or next month? Why change the formula, when thereís nothing to be gained? The Northern Alliance fighters know the terrain and the language, and U.S. forces havenít trained with them, arenít used to communicating with them on the battlefield. The Marines will probably end up doing what it makes sense for them to do — provide technical support, protect the airfield, maybe cut off an escape route if itís needed. But going door-to-door in Kandahar when the Taliban says itíll fight to the death? I donít see it.

Is there an exception to the rule?

What Iíve been told is that if we get solid intelligence on where bin Laden or some top al Qaeda people are — an exact location — and itís not a situation where a bombing raid would work, then the Marines will be there in an hour or two, probably a surgical-type operation of 100 or so troops. But failing that, the operative word seems to be patience — Kandahar will fall when Kandahar falls, and there seems to be little to gain with a U.S. troop presence if itís a strictly territorial battle. And much to lose.