WASHINGTON -- The stepped-up pace of the war inside Afghanistan also means increased risks: A CIA operative remains unaccounted for, five soldiers are recovering from friendly fire and more casualties are likely with Marines on the ground.
In addition, the enemy is so dedicated to its cause that fighters are ''willing to have hand grenades wrapped around themselves and blow themselves up, so they can kill a half-dozen other people in close proximity,'' said Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.
''The thought that they'll surrender,'' Rumsfeld warned, ''is not likely.''
The increased danger was apparent Tuesday as some of the 600 Marines already setting up base at a remote southern airstrip began to set out on patrol, in Humvees loaded with anti-tank weapons and heavy machine guns.
The eventual deployment of 1,000 Marines at the airstrip will more than double the number of U.S. troops on the ground, raising the chance of combat casualties. And those forces face the task of wiping out the last pockets of the hardest-core Taliban and al-Qaida fighters, including terror suspect No. 1 Osama bin Laden.
''This is a dangerous period of time,'' President Bush said Monday. ''We're now hunting down the people who are responsible for bombing America.''
During the war's first seven weeks, the United States mostly bombed from aircraft in support of northern alliance fighters who swept the Taliban from all territory except for a few pockets. A few Americans advised the rebels, and a few hundred special operations forces were put on the ground to guide bombers to targets and, later, to blockade roads and search for bin Laden.
Although there have been injuries and accidental deaths outside Afghanistan, no American military commandos have died so far while fighting alongside anti-Taliban forces.
But in the last few days, the fighting has entered a more aggressive, messier and potentially more deadly phase.
The Marines sent to the airstrip, 60 miles southwest of the Taliban stronghold of Kandahar, will help block escape routes for Taliban and al-Qaida leaders, Rumsfeld said.
The Marines also will make quick strikes when they can and help identify targets for U.S. bombing.
Shortly after arriving, some of the Marines participated in an attack by Navy F-14 Tomcat jet fighters on an armored column, keeping Marine Cobra helicopters nearby and ready to fire if needed.
The Marines face an enemy ''who've made the decision to fight to the end,'' said retired Rear Adm. Stephen Baker, an analyst at the Center for Defense Information in Washington. ''For that reason, they are extremely dangerous.''
In the north, meanwhile, the northern alliance -- aided by U.S. and British special forces -- finally managed to put down a riot by al-Qaida fighters inside a prison fortress.
But the days of brutal fighting took a toll: Five American soldiers were hit by a misguided bomb as they called in air attacks over the weekend on the al-Qaida troops. And the fate of an American CIA operative caught inside the fortress during the rioting remains unclear, although he is feared dead.
Rumsfeld on Tuesday cautioned against claiming victory too quickly in Afghan cities that have fallen to rebels, noting that Taliban fighters could still be hiding out in homes.
''Anyone who believes it's over in these towns are just wrong,'' he said.
On the Net:
Central Command: http://www.centcom.mil/new--site/web/Default.htm
Peninsula Clarion ©2013. All Rights Reserved.