U.S. Eviscerates Taliban Fight Power

WASHINGTON?Intensified U.S. airstrikes have ?eviscerated? the Taliban?s combat power and placed it in imminent danger of losing a key northern stronghold, a senior Pentagon official said Tuesday.

Marine Corps Lt. Gen. Gregory Newbold, director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, confirmed that Monday?s strikes?by far the heaviest since the aerial bombardment began Oct. 7?included the first use of the Air Force?s AC-130 Spectre gunship, a low-flying special operations aircraft.

Newbold said two AC-130s were used but he offered no details, including their targets. Another defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said they were used against a Taliban military barracks and headquarters building in Kandahar, the Taliban?s seat of power in southern Afghanistan.

Speaking at a Pentagon news conference, Newbold said U.S. warplanes bombed a variety of military targets Monday, including armored vehicles at a training facility near Kandahar, surface-to-air missile emplacements defending the Kandahar airport and a tank near an airfield at Mazar-e Sharif, a Taliban-controlled city in northern Afghanistan that opposition forces are trying to overrun.

Newbold would not discuss Tuesday’s bombing, and he said Pentagon officials had yet to determine whether a U.S. missile or bomb was responsible for setting Red Cross warehouses afire near Kabul.

Newbold said the nine days of U.S. and British bombing, including attacks that have aided the northern alliance forces, have put the Taliban in jeopardy of losing Mazar-e Sharif.

He said the Taliban is ?in danger of being cut off right now? at Mazar-e-Sharif and could lose control there within days, depending on when the northern alliance decides to move into the city. Losing that city, which has been a staging ground for the Taliban since 1998, would hurt them in two ways, he said.

?One is that it’s a crossroads mostly for resupply of their forces,? he said. ?The other one is a psychologic one: As most of you know, Mazar-i Sharif has been fought over for three years now, and it’s changed hands. Its loss to the Taliban would be a significant setback.?

Newbold said that while U.S. forces are not working directly with northern alliance troops on the ground, the airstrikes are dramatically reducing the Taliban’s ability to carry out military action.

?The combat power of the Taliban has been eviscerated,? Newbold said.

Victoria Clarke, chief spokeswoman for Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, cautioned reporters not to assume that a drop-off in the number of airstrikes in the days ahead meant the anti terror campaign was easing.

?While at times you may see a certain leveling off of activities, other, less visible activities may be under way,? she said, alluding to financial, political, diplomatic and other behind-the-scenes efforts to crack down on terrorists. She may also have been referring to the expected start of U.S. special operations on the ground in Afghanistan to root out Taliban and al Qaeda leaders.

Newbold made a similar point.

?Some days you?ll see that the number of aircraft go up, and sometimes there will be few, and some days there won’t be any,? he said. ?Regardless, we?re going to keep up the pressure on the terrorists and on the Taliban leadership.?