Airstrikes Now Target Al Qaeda Troops

WASHINGTON?Shifting the focus of U.S. airstrikes in Afghanistan from fixed military targets to Taliban troops is a logical progression toward the goal of destroying the Taliban and the al Qaeda terrorist network they harbor, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said Monday.

Speaking at a Pentagon news conference as U.S. warplanes struck for the 16th day, Rumsfeld said that Sunday U.S. warplanes began bombing Taliban troops arrayed against opposition forces north of the capital, Kabul, and near the northern crossroads city of Mazar-e-Sharif, a Taliban stronghold.

?The reason for the air attacks on Taliban and al Qaeda forces is to destroy Taliban and al Qaeda forces,? Rumsfeld said, denying suggestions that the Bush administration had held back on bombing those front-line Taliban positions out of concern that the opposition northern alliance would capture Kabul.

?We?re not holding back at all,? he said.

Rumsfeld also did not hold back his anger at leaks of information to the American news media last Friday indicating that U.S. special operations forces were planning to enter Afghanistan.

?It just floors me? that people with such information would leak it, he said.

Rumsfeld said it was vital that some information about U.S. military operations in Afghanistan remain secret.

?We cannot and will not provide information that could jeopardize the success of our efforts to root out and liquidate the terrorist networks that threaten our people,? he said.

The top commander of U.S. forces involved in the military campaign, Army Gen. Tommy Franks, flew to the region on Sunday to consult with government officials and visit some of the troops.

Pentagon spokesman Marine Corps Lt. Col. David Lapan said Franks? itinerary was secret, at least for now. It is known, however, to include a stop in Saudi Arabia, a key U.S. ally in the region. Franks is commander in chief of U.S. Central Command, and his headquarters is in Tampa, Fla.

Up to now, the focus of U.S. bombing had been Taliban air defenses, airfields, aircraft, military support structures like barracks, command-and control facilities, communications, ammunition warehouses, vehicle and weapon repair facilities, and training camps used by the al Qaeda terrorists.

Air Force Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told Monday?s news conference that those earlier attacks were designed to undercut the Taliban?s ability to replace troops it loses on the front lines. He noted, for example, that the attacks destroyed many Taliban transport aircraft used either to fly reinforcements to the front lines or to extract wounded troops.

In explaining the timing of the move against Taliban front-line fighters, Myers emphasized the payoff for the northern alliance, which is a loose confederation of factions that has been fighting for years to oust the Taliban.

?We?re starting to work on some Taliban targets that are arrayed out in the field against folks that we would like to help, and that?s what we’re about,? he said.

Military analysts said this was a sensible step.

?The center of gravity for the Taliban is their military, and minimizing or eliminating their military is necessary? to achieve the goal of toppling that regime, said George Joulwan, a retired four-star Army general.

He and others predicted that the attacks on front-line Taliban troops would go on for weeks.