ABOARD THE USS THEODORE ROOSEVELT – The commander of a U.S. battle group said Thursday the air campaign in Afghanistan is creating conditions for a widespread revolt against the Taliban regime.
Rear Adm. Mark Fitzgerald said the assault by U.S. warplanes has both enabled anti-Taliban forces to gain ground and provoked the defection of growing numbers of Taliban soldiers.
Every day of the past week, U.S. warplanes have been knocking out Taliban armor, tanks, armored personnel carriers and key mortar, artillery and machine-gun positions, the commander of the USS Theodore Roosevelt battle group said.
"We've seen more and more of those who have aligned with the Taliban coming over to the coalition side," said the admiral from Winchester, Mass.
"We've seen reporting of a lot of attrition on the side of the Taliban because of our bombing and we've seen movement of the coalition forces, particularly around Mazar-e-Sharif," he said, referring to a key northern town in Taliban hands.
"We're seeing the northern alliance opposition making good gains right now and what I think we would hope for is for the Afghan people to rise up against the Taliban and for this coalition to extend to include all people in Afghanistan (and) to basically overthrow the government.
In Washington on Wednesday, Marine Corps Gen. Peter Pace said U.S. special forces working with opposition forces are reporting progress against the Taliban near Mazar-e-Sharif. But he could not confirm the claim by the northern alliance that its forces have taken new territory.
The United States has been bombing Afghanistan for more than a month after its Taliban leaders refused to hand over usama bin Laden and other members of his Al Qaeda network. Bin Laden and Al Qaeda are accused of masterminding the Sept. 11 terror attacks on New York and Washington.
Although the U.S. airstrikes have largely destroyed the Taliban air defense system, supply infrastructure and lines of communication, Taliban fighters were still occasionally firing surface-to-air hand-held missiles at the U.S. planes, particularly at nighttime, Fitzgerald said. A number of missiles were being carried around on horseback, he said.
"They still have the capability to attack our airplanes. They haven't been nearly successful yet," he said.
After a 10-hour rest and maintenance work on the aircraft, the crew of the Roosevelt catapulted off another round of U.S. Navy F-14 Tomcats and Marine Corps F/A-18C Hornets. As the dawn broke over the Arabian Sea, the flight deck crew started receiving the planes launched early Thursday, while sending others off.
The Roosevelt is one of three U.S. Navy battle groups in the Arabian Sea. The others are led by the aircraft carriers USS Carl Vinson and the USS Kittyhawk, which Pentagon officials have said was being used for U.S. special operations troops. Between the Roosevelt and the Carl Vinson, the airstrikes against Taliban and Al Qaeda targets were running virtually nonstop.
Comparing the campaign in Afghanistan with his previous experience in overseeing U.S. patrols of "no-fly" zones over northern and southern Iraq, Fitzgerald said long flights and in flight refueling made the missions essentially the same, the only difference being the targets.
In Afghanistan, "we're not going after a large military establishment or very fixed infrastructure. The targets are very small and the targets we're going after are the leadership setup, the Al Qaeda organization and the Taliban... It's a lot harder to pinpoint those kind of targets so we end up spending a lot of time doing reconnaissance of the field."
The "no-fly" zones have been set up after the 1991 Gulf War to protect minority Shiites and Kurds in Iraq from government attacks.