WASHINGTON - U.S. warplanes pounded suspected weapons storage sites across Afghanistan day and night yesterday, igniting huge explosions in the capital, Kabul, and sending residents scurrying for shelter.
The U.S. planes have also begun a campaign of dropping leaflets over Afghanistan to try to explain to civilians that the United States is a friend. The leaflets - in the local languages of Pashtu and Dari - were added Sunday to the drops being made of humanitarian food packets.
"We're working to make clear to the Afghan people that we support them, and we want to help free their nation from the grip of the Taliban and their foreign terrorist allies," Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said at a news conference.
In addition, Rumsfeld said that the United States is seeking to forge ties with the anti-Taliban forces of the Northern Alliance, though he was sketchy about its status.
"That process is going forward, and it is still incomplete, if you will," he said.
Pentagon officials have said that the bombing campaign, now in its second week, is meant to set the stage for follow-up action, which is expected to involve ground forces. Northern Alliance leaders have said they have linked up with British and U.S. commando forces in the region.
U.S. officials have refused to describe the nature or timing of any future combat actions in Afghanistan. But President Bush seemed to look ahead yesterday to a new, more complex phase in the U.S.-led offensive when he spoke at a welcoming ceremony for the new chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Air Force Gen. Richard B. Myers.
"For the mission that lies ahead, you will have everything you need," he said of service members. "Every resource, every weapon, every means to assure full victory for the United States, our allies, our friends, and the cause of freedom."
The U.S. air assaults yesterday, which were followed by nighttime raids, were the biggest daylight attacks so far over Afghanistan. The USS Theodore Roosevelt joined three aircraft carriers already in the region.
In the meantime, the United States is waging an intensive public relations effort to win the support of Afghan civilians and Muslims in such countries as Pakistan who have voiced anger over the U.S. attacks. That effort includes dropping the leaflets and sending Bush's national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, to sit for an interview yesterday with Al-Jazeera, the Arab satellite news station.
In the interview, Rice said: "We want it to be very clear that the war on terrorism is not a war against Islam. Islam is a peaceful religion. Islam is a religion that respects innocent human life."
One of the leaflets dropped yesterday shows a Western soldier in camouflage and helmet shaking hands with a man in traditional Afghan dress in front of a mountain scene.
"The partnership of nations is here to assist the people of Afghanistan," the leaflet states.
Over the weekend, more than 68,000 food packets were dropped, bringing the total to 275,000 since the effort began.
"This is bringing needed food to hungry Afghan people, as well as a message of friendship from the American people," Rumsfeld said.
The defense secretary said that the bombing targets are being expanded on a day-by-day basis as military planners cross some off the list and add others.
"The target [plan] that existed at the outset has been significantly enhanced by additional information from the ground," he said. "As a result, the number of targets that are available have continued to be roughly the number that they were the day before."
Rumsfeld sharply disputed Taliban government reports that the U.S. bombing has killed hundreds of civilians. He asserted that "some of the numbers [claimed] are ridiculous" and that the "Taliban leadership and al-Qaida are accomplished liars."
Without offering an estimate, Rumsfeld acknowledged that some Afghan civilians have been unintended casualties of the strikes. "I don't think there is any way to avoid that" in a war, he said.
Rumsfeld also suggested that U.S. airstrikes could begin targeting Taliban front-line positions that are facing the fighters of the Northern Alliance.
"I suspect that in the period ahead that that's not going to be a very safe place to be" for Taliban troops, he said. "We hope to have improved targeting information in the period ahead."
The Northern Alliance is pressing for the United States to provide air cover as it fights the Taliban troops north of Kabul, and opposition officials have expressed frustration over the level of U.S. military support.
Still, the Northern Alliance claims it is making progress. Yesterday, alliance officials said its forces had advanced to within three miles of the airport at Mazar-e Sharif, a strategic city that the Taliban have held since 1998. The claim could not be independently verified.
The alliance's deputy defense minister, Atiqullah Baryalai, said his forces had captured two towns, Marmol and Sherdian, on the southern fringes of Mazar-e Sharif last night.
He stopped short of predicting that his forces would capture the city and said the Northern Alliance was having difficulty supplying its troops because its small helicopter fleet was vulnerable to Taliban anti-aircraft guns.
Northern Alliance officials claim that 300 to 400 Pakistani and Arab fighters have crossed from Pakistan near the central city of Chaman on the Afghan border to try to link up with the Taliban. U.S. officials said they could not confirm whether any volunteers were heading into Afghanistan.
Over the weekend, U.S. and British forces continued to attack al-Qaida terrorist training camps, airfields, air defense forces and command-and-control facilities with bombs and cruise missiles, Pentagon officials said.
Since Oct. 7, F-14 and F/A-18 warplanes from the USS Enterprise and USS Carl Vinson have run hundreds of bombing raids over Afghanistan. The Roosevelt is expected to relieve the Enterprise, which was to have returned home earlier but was ordered to stay in the region after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
The USS Kitty Hawk is the fourth carrier in the region. The Pentagon has said it was in the Indian Ocean but has kept its mission secret. The Kitty Hawk left its home base in Japan without its usual number of planes aboard, allowing it to be used as a floating base for special forces operations.
There were signs that the attacks were worsening the suffering of the Afghan people, already impoverished after more than 20 years of civil conflict. At a Kabul hospital, doctors and mothers said the nightly power outages were threatening the lives of newborns, especially premature babies who require incubators.
In Washington, Bush began an intensive week of diplomacy, speaking by phone with President Abdelaziz Bouteflika of Algeria and Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar of Spain, and later meeting with Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi of Italy.
Berlusconi, in a speech last month, had antagonized some Muslim leaders when he spoke of "the superiority of Christianity" and the need to "occidentalize" the Middle East. After an outcry, the Italian prime minister apologized and asserted that his words had been taken out of context.
With estimates of the financial losses caused by the terrorist attacks mounting, the Bush administration proposed a plan yesterday that would split the costs of property claims from future terror attacks between the government and the insurance industry.
Insurance companies that write policies protecting property could face payments of $30 billion to $50 billion for the attacks on New York and Washington, the biggest insured loss ever.
Major reinsurance companies, which assume part of the risk covered by insurance companies, have said they won't renew terrorism coverage after Dec. 31, when many contracts will expire and must be renewed.
The administration's plan is offered as an alternative to legislation that would create a government-backed insurance industry pool to cover future terrorism losses.
Administration officials complain that that proposal would put the government in the position of directly regulating the insurance industry and possibly the rates charged for coverage.
Wire services contributed to this article.
Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun