WASHINGTON – The U.S. commander of the war in Afghanistan raised the possibility Wednesday of ordering more troops and firepower into the 5-day-old battle against a spread-out and dug-in force of Al Qaeda fighters.
Gen. Tommy Franks, after briefing President Bush on the war, told a Pentagon news conference he was confident the U.S.-led assault would succeed but he would not predict how long it might take. He described the situation on the ground as "very messy," increasingly dangerous.
The four-star Army general said he was certain that Bush and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld would support him in expanding the U.S. force in Afghanistan if that turned out to be necessary. Franks stressed that he had not sought any increase but had thousands of troops available in the region.
Later, Bush said U.S. troops had described the enemy forces as "Al Qaeda-type terrorists" and were "bringing them to justice."
"There's a fierce battle waging," Bush said. "But we're winning that battle. I'm so sad we lose life. My heart breaks when I think about the moms and dads or wives or children of those who have lost their life. But we defend freedom, and we're fighting for freedom, and we must continue to fight for freedom."
Of the 5,300 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, about 1,100 are committed to the fight in the snowy peaks south of the city of Gardez. Franks said the U.S. force, which began at about 800 men, has grown by 200 or 300 in recent days. They are regular troops from the 101st Airborne and 10th Mountain divisions, as well as special operations troops.
Eight American and three Afghan troops have died since Operation Anaconda began March 1, but none since Monday.
"The days ahead are going to continue to be dangerous days for our forces that are committed to this effort," Franks said. "But the alternative to taking such risk is not acceptable in my view."
U.S. officials have not ruled out the possibility that the enemy forces, described by Franks as fierce, dedicated fighters, are protecting a senior Al Qaeda leader, perhaps even Usama bin Laden.
On Tuesday, five Marine Corps Cobra attack helicopters were added to the fight, as well as two Marine Corps CH-53 transport helicopters. Air Force A-10 ground-attack planes also have joined the battle in recent days — marking the first time the Thunderbolts have seen action in Afghanistan.
The Air Force also is flying F-16 and F-15 fighters and B-52 and B-1 bombers, and Navy F-14 and F/A-18 fighters are flying from an aircraft carrier in the North Arabian Sea. About a dozen additional Apache attack helicopters are being sent to the battlefield, in part to replace a number of Apaches damaged by enemy fire in the opening days of the battle, defense officials said.
Air Force AC-130 gunships armed with howitzers, cannons and Gatling guns also are in use as American, Afghan and other allied ground troops seek out Al Qaeda positions and search cave complexes.
Franks said that in addition to the Cobra and Apache attack helicopters, the need may arise for even more such weapons. He also raised the possibility of more transport aircraft, infantry and special operations troops.
Appearing with Franks, Rumsfeld said it was possible that the several hundred Al Qaeda and Taliban fighters who are targeted in the offensive could be joined by more Al Qaeda.
"It's possible that additional Al Qaeda or Taliban could come from the mountains or from the villages or from across the borders," Rumsfeld said. "And to the extent that happened, that could change the situation, and that's fine, because we're looking for them wherever they are. And to the extent that additional forces are needed, we'll put what is needed to do the job."
Franks, who commands all U.S. forces in an area that includes the Horn of Africa, the Persian Gulf and Central Asia, said he has about 60,000 forces in the vicinity of Afghanistan. Most of the 5,300 inside Afghanistan are at Kandahar or Bagram air base. Other troops are in Uzbekistan, Pakistan and Kyrgyzstan.
Air Force B-52 and B-1 bombers are stationed on the Indian Ocean island of Diego Garcia, and hundreds of aircraft are based in several Persian Gulf nations, including Kuwait, Bahrain, Oman, and Saudi Arabia.
Many allied nations have forces in Afghanistan, including Britain, Germany, France, Canada, and Australia.