WASHINGTON -- The American commander of the war in Afghanistan is assembling a mix of ground forces and air power to fit the most difficult and dangerous phase of the military campaign: rooting out Taliban and al-Qaida terrorist leaders from caves, tunnels and other fortified hide-outs.
No decision has been made to commit U.S. ground troops to the mission, but Gen. Tommy Franks has made clear he will move forces closer to the key targets in case opposition forces cannot finish the job.
About 1,000 Marines are now established at a remote airfield in southern Afghanistan, and nearly 100 regular Army troops from the 10th Mountain Division have moved into northern areas.
In addition to about two dozen 10th Mountain soldiers posted at an airfield near Mazar-e-Sharif, there are as many as 75 from the same division at Bagram airport north of Kabul, the Afghan capital, officials said. Both groups are acting as a ''rapid reaction force'' to protect U.S. interests.
In neighboring Uzbekistan, where about 1,000 members of the 10th Mountain have been stationed for weeks, U.S. officials announced that a soldier from that unit died Thursday of a gunshot. They said his death was not the result of enemy action and was being investigated. No other details were released, including the soldier's name.
Pentagon officials said Thursday that Franks is considering sending additional attack planes to the region, while at least two airfields in northern Afghanistan are being repaired for possible U.S. use.
A senior defense official said Thursday that the government of Kyrgyzstan has given Franks conditional approval to base U.S. aircraft at an air base in that former Soviet republic, which lies to the north of Afghanistan and Tajikistan.
Franks must provide details, such as the numbers and kinds of aircraft, and the expected length of their deployment, before Kyrgyzstan will give final approval. The official said Franks has not decided those details and has yet to make a formal request.
Most of the U.S. planes attacking targets in Afghanistan are flying from aircraft carriers in the Arabian Sea or from land bases in the Persian Gulf and the Indian Ocean. Some Air Force special operations helicopters are based in Uzbekistan. Small numbers of U.S. forces are in Pakistan.
With only small pockets of Taliban resistance remaining in northern Afghanistan, the focus is on Kandahar, the southern city that gave birth to the Taliban militia movement. Franks wants to tighten the squeeze on Kandahar with selective U.S. bombing and growing pressure from anti-Taliban forces. The chief leadership target there is Mullah Mohammed Omar, the Taliban supreme leader.
U.S. special operations forces are working with opposition commanders in the south in an effort to improve the coordination of their attacks, which so far have made little progress against the Taliban in Kandahar, officials said Thursday.
Rear Adm. John Stufflebeem said the Taliban military is now ''fractured,'' with little capability to coordinate or communicate. While some are fleeing or laying down their arms, others are digging in for a long fight, he said.
The southern opposition groups are in active negotiations with the Taliban for control of the city, he said.
If Kandahar falls, as appears likely, Franks will have further limited the territory on which his No. 1 prey -- alleged terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden -- can hide. Franks will have more options for intensifying the search in the cave complexes near Jalalabad, in eastern Afghanistan, where some believe bin Laden is holed up.
At this point Franks is hoping that $25 million in reward money offered by the U.S. government for information leading to the capture of bin Laden and his top lieutenants will enable Afghan opposition forces to finish off al-Qaida. If not, U.S. ground forces might have to go after them.
Franks, commander of U.S. Central Command, told the New York Times in an interview published Thursday that he was ruling out no option to achieve the goal established by President Bush -- to get bin Laden and eradicate the al-Qaida network. That might require sending Army forces to set up an operating base like the one the Marines established about 70 miles southwest of Kandahar, he said.
Another option is to move the Marines from their current base to one closer to Kandahar, one official said.
Meanwhile, U.S. strike aircraft and bombers continued to hit cave and tunnel complexes in the vicinity of Jalalabad, as well as Taliban and al-Qaida targets near Kandahar.
Other planes are dropping leaflets and broadcasting radio messages encouraging Afghans to help in the hunt, Stufflebeem said.
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