Next Phase To Include More Troops
By Thomas E. Ricks
When the U.S. bombing campaign in Afghanistan starts to wind down at the end of this week, the Pentagon plans to begin the next phase of the war on terrorism by sending a significant number of additional ground troops to the Mideast and Central Asia, defense officials said yesterday.
The deployment of the additional forces is not a prelude to a full-scale conventional ground attack on Afghanistan, they said, but the next step in what is essentially an ad hoc approach to an unconventional war. Their presence will give planners maximum flexibility as they consider options in the days ahead, a senior defense official said.
"They [the troops] will start to go, but it's not because we have a clear and defined plan," the official said. "We want to position ourself in such a fashion that we have a wide range of options."
The additional troops are a fraction of the number sent to the 1991 Persian Gulf War. They could do everything from bolstering the border defenses of Uzbekistan to flying into Afghanistan to temporarily hold an airfield or cordon off an area that is being searched, officials indicated.
Asked whether the Pentagon is considering large-scale ground attacks inside Afghanistan, one official said, "Nothing has been ruled out."
The movement of ground troops also will be intended to reinforce the message that the U.S. government is determined to carry out a long-term, wide-ranging campaign against terrorism, the senior defense official said. Some Arab allies had worried about the Americans' tenacity, and a major theme of Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld's tour of the Mideast and Central Asia last week was that the United States is in it for the long haul.
The aerial attacks that marked the first phase of the war began Sunday and are expected to last three to five days. Their objective is to punish the Taliban government, by undercutting its power, and destroying the terrorist network inside Afghanistan.
But Rumsfeld and other Pentagon officials have made it clear they understand the limits of air power in a country that after two decades of war has few "high-value targets" standing.
The buildup will begin with the movement of 1,000 soldiers from the Army's 10th Mountain Division to join the 1,000 already in Central Asia. Additional troops will come from posts in the United States, but some almost certainly will be pulled out of the U.S. peacekeeping missions in Bosnia and Kosovo, those officials added.
Other NATO countries are expected to send replacement troops to keep the Balkans operations fully staffed.
"In the next week, you'll see people start moving," one official familiar with the planned movement said. Rumsfeld signed the order for the troop movement on Friday night, another official said, adding, "They will probably deploy, but it isn't clear what they'll do."
The durability of the American commitment is a special concern for the government of Uzbekistan, which has made itself vulnerable by agreeing to host several thousand U.S. troops. The Taliban said recently it had moved troops to the Uzbek border and was prepared to attack if Uzbekistan participated in the U.S.-led strikes.
Underscoring the long-term nature of the U.S. campaign against terrorism, commanders of the units sending the troops are being told to expect the mission to last as long as a year -- although the individual troops probably will be deployed for three to six months, and then replaced by other members of their unit, said an official familiar with the deployment orders.
But the signal being sent is clearer than information about how the troops will be used. The senior defense official said that it is possible they could take part in offensive actions inside Afghanistan. Another official, nearly as well-connected, indicated that the major role played by the new ground troops would be "force protection" -- that is, missions such as providing perimeter security for the Air Force units deploying to Uzbekistan.
Rumsfeld appeared to hedge yesterday on the future role of U.S. troops in Afghanistan. Asked at a Pentagon news conference whether U.S. ground troops would fight there, he said, "I wouldn't want to speculate on that."
But in the next breath Rumsfeld warned that airstrikes alone wouldn't bring success: "I think it's just terribly important to underline that and emphasize it so that people don't go away with the mistaken understanding that some sort of a cruise missile is going to solve that problem, because it isn't."
Also unclear is what other units are being sent, and where they might wind up in the region around Afghanistan. One Army general and another officer said they had been told that elements of the 101st Airborne Division and much of the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment, both based at Fort Campbell, Ky., had been notified that they should be prepared to deploy overseas by Oct. 16.
One also said that the 101st had been notified that it wouldn't be asked to send a battalion to the peacekeeping mission in the Sinai Desert, as had been planned.
Yesterday was a holiday for the military, and neither the commanders nor the spokesman for the 101st Division could be reached for comment. A spokesman for the Army Special Operations Command declined to comment on whether the 160th had received a deployment order.
The division's Web site does carry the vague message, "Our thoughts and prayers are with the soldiers of the 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault) joining the peacekeeping forces around the world."
Another Army general said he expected that the Army would mount an operation somewhere near Afghanistan that resembled "Task Force Hawk" -- the force of attack helicopters, tanks and soldiers that was sent to Albania during the Kosovo War but never was sent into combat.
The deputy commander of Task Force Hawk was Maj. Gen. Richard A. Cody, a former chief of the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment and now head of the 101st Airborne.
One defense official said the plan is to put Army helicopters -- most likely from the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment, the Army's only unit of special operations helicopters -- aboard the USS Kitty Hawk, which recently left Japan without most of its usual complement of aircraft. That aircraft carrier is likely to play a key role in future Special Forces raids into Afghanistan, the official indicated.
Military planners have taken pains to reduce the U.S. military's "footprint" in Pakistan. So the Kitty Hawk will pick up the Army helicopters somewhere in the Persian Gulf region, the official said, and then steam to the Arabian Sea off the coast of Pakistan. The helicopters then will fly to an air base inside Pakistan, where they will be loaded with Special Forces troops flown there on C-130 transport aircraft.
From there, the refueled helicopters will head into Afghanistan, the senior defense official said.
The apparent inclination of the Bush administration to reduce the U.S. troop commitment in the Balkans could prove to be controversial, given the volatile situation in Macedonia last spring and summer.
There are 5,300 U.S. troops in Kosovo and 3,600 in Bosnia. One reason soldiers are being moved from that region is that it can be done quickly, one officer said. The Army requires an extraordinary amount of training, certification and official clearances before shipping a soldier overseas, and the troops in the Balkans already have passed those hurdles.
"They're already trained and certified, they have their shots, they've done their wills and other paperwork," explained this officer.
But another defense official said the war on terrorism was being used as a pretext to draw down the U.S. contribution to the NATO peacekeeping effort in the Balkans. "We're using it to help reduce our presence," he said.
Rumsfeld said in May that he wanted to cut the U.S. presence in the Balkans. "The military job was done three or four years ago" in Bosnia, he said.