Rumsfeld, Franks Optimistic but Cautious on Afghanistan
By Gerry J. Gilmore
American Forces Press Service
TAMPA, Fla., Nov. 27, 2001 Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld told reporters here the situation in Afghanistan is "difficult and dangerous."
"The war is not over," he said. Taliban and Al Qaeda forces are going to ground, but the United States and its allies have "assets on the ground" that can combat this situation.
Rumsfeld and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Air Force Gen. Richard Myers flew into MacDill Air Force Base, the home of the U.S. Central Command, to receive briefings on the situation from CENTCOM Commander Army Gen. Tommy R. Franks.
Rumsfeld and Franks briefed the press at a downtown Tampa hotel. They said the Afghan war has gone according to plan thus far. But the mission isn't over, Franks said. The United States still must eliminate the Taliban and Al Qaeda terrorist network in the country.
Rumsfeld said the northern portion of Afghanistan is mostly in opposition hands. However, there is the possibility that Taliban and Al Qaeda "deserters and defectors" may still lurk in the cities and in the rugged countryside.
Franks pointed to the cities of Kandahar and Jalalabad and said the two areas still have sizeable concentrations of Taliban and Al Qaeda forces.
The two men addressed the recent arrival of Marine forces south of Kandahar. Franks said the Marine mission is to provide a forward-deployed base, and to watch roadways to interdict Taliban and Al Qaeda forces. The mere presence of the force puts pressure on enemy forces still in Kandahar, he said. Rumsfeld and Franks said expect about 1,100 Marines at the base. Franks said they would be there as "long as the mission remains." He said the situation is very confused around Kandahar. Foreign Taliban forces are trying to escape from the city. U.S. special operations forces are working with southern tribes to tighten the noose around the Taliban and Al Qaeda in the region.
Franks said the situation in the northern city of Mazar-e Sharif is still dangerous. The riot in the fortress holding Taliban prisoners is still going on. Franks said 30 to 40 hard core foreign Taliban are still holding out and still firing on Northern Alliance forces.
U.S. troops found lab paraphernalia, chemical compositions and materials at places around the country. "We've acquired a great deal of samples," Franks said. The samples have been sent back to the United States for testing. The fear is the terrorists may have been making weapons of mass destruction in the country.
"You can be certain if weapons of mass destruction are found in Afghanistan, we would remove them from the country," Rumsfeld said. "This is non-negotiable."
Rumsfeld said the broadcasts and leaflets made by the United States offering a reward for information on Osama bin Laden are starting to show results. He said U.S. forces are receiving many tips from people interested in the rewards.
Franks said Pakistan has been a good ally. "They have been providing a lot of intelligence, and they've been watching the Afghan-Pakistan border," Franks said. There are more than 150 mountain passes between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Pakistani forces are watching these passes to ensure Taliban forces and Al Qaeda terrorists do not escape from Afghanistan.
Even with this effort, Franks could not guarantee no Taliban members might escape. "It's a long border," he said.
Rumsfeld mentioned two other countries with Al Qaeda ties: Somalia and Yemen. Yemen, of course, is where the USS Cole was attacked last year. Somalia has been a refuge for Al Qaeda for years.
Franks said U.S. Central Command is considering a forward base for the command in the region.