WASHINGTON - More than 100 U.S. special operations forces, including Army Rangers, conducted a nighttime raid on Afghanistan, the first known U.S. ground action of the military campaign, a U.S. official said last night.
There were no confirmed reports of American casualties on the ground. But the Pentagon said last night that a U.S. military helicopter crashed in an accident yesterday in neighboring Pakistan, killing two service members.
A U.S. official said the helicopter was not directly involved in the ground operation in Afghanistan but was on standby for search-and-rescue missions if needed by the special operations troops. The two service members killed, who were not identified, are the first known combat-related U.S. casualties in the region.
"The important thing for me to tell the American people is these soldiers will not have died in vain," he said.
Bush refused to comment on the raid but said of the U.S. operation in general: "I am satisfied we are making very good progress. We are dismantling the Taliban defenses. ... We are destroying terrorists' hideaways. We are slowly but surely circling the terrorists so we can bring them to justice."
The U.S. special forces completed the operation in Afghanistan within a few hours early today local time, said the U.S. official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. The helicopter-borne forces then left Afghan airspace, the official said, presumably to return to base.
It could not be immediately determined what the commandos were attempting to do in Afghanistan.
Some news reports indicated that the commandos engaged in ground combat around the Taliban stronghold of Kandahar in southern Afghanistan, opening a new phase of the war on terrorism after nearly two weeks of punishing airstrikes. The Kandahar area has been a primary target of U.S. aerial assaults in recent days.
It was not clear where the U.S. special forces had originated. NBC News reported that the commandos came in on helicopters from the USS Kitty Hawk, a carrier in the Arabian Sea that is known to be carrying special operations troops. Other reports said that some of the helicopters came from land bases in the region and that fighter aircraft had provided cover for them.
In recent days, Taliban leaders had dared the United States to launch a heavy ground campaign. Sohail Shaheen, a spokesman for the Taliban embassy in Pakistan, said:
"If they want to send in soldiers, they should send in 100,000. Then it can be a fight between our soldiers and theirs."
Last night, Sen. Carl Levin, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said that introducing U.S. commando forces into Afghanistan would damage the Taliban "militarily and psychologically."
"This is going to be a gradual process," Levin, a Michigan Democrat, said on CNN's Larry King Live. "As we're tightening the noose, it seems to me a lot of important things can be done, including the gathering of the support of a number of opposition forces in Afghanistan."
Earlier in the day, officials confirmed that special forces were in northern and southern Afghanistan, searching for Taliban targets to strike and hunting for clues to the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaida lieutenants.
The use of small numbers of U.S. troops in Afghanistan marked a shift to a broader range of military activities - overt and covert - that President Bush says is necessary to win the war.
A Pakistani military official said yesterday that American officials had informed his government that U.S. special forces would be conducting "hit-and-run" operations in Taliban-ruled areas of Afghanistan in a bid to flush out bin Laden, members of his al-Qaida network and Taliban leaders.
He said Pakistan was told U.S. forces have been in northern Afghanistan more than a week.
And Air Force special operations AC-130 gunships began attacking in southern Afghanistan. The high-firepower AC-130s typically give close air cover to forces on the ground or going in for small-unit operations.
Special operations troops such as the Army's Green Berets perform many missions, including assistance to opposition forces and collection of intelligence.
Special forces in southern Afghanistan are supporting the CIA's effort to encourage ethnic Pashtun leaders to break away from the Taliban militia, a U.S. official said yesterday.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld acknowledged yesterday that the U.S. military's coordination with the anti-Taliban opposition in southern Afghanistan is still too weak to topple the government and root out al-Qaida.
Speaking on a visit to Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri, Rumsfeld cautioned against assuming that a defeat of the Taliban forces is imminent. "It's not," he said.
The Taliban troops, the defense secretary said, are "tough" and "survivors."
The U.S. goal in southern Afghanistan is to encourage resistance among opposition groups. These groups are far less organized in the south than are the Northern Alliance opposition forces elsewhere in the country.
U.S. and British special forces have been working closely in the north with opposition forces. The opposition troops have been providing targeting information to U.S. forces, according to opposition leaders and Pentagon officials.
Rumsfeld said the Northern Alliance has asked for and received U.S. aid, including ammunition or money to buy it. But he conceded, "We do not have the kinds of interaction with some elements in the south that I would have to see to see progress."
Asked yesterday whether the war on terrorism would have to be fought in countries outside Afghanistan in order to be successful, Rumsfeld replied, "There's no doubt in my mind."
Separately, U.S. officials said the air assaults that began Oct. 7 and continued yesterday would intensify soon and focus more directly on frontline troops of the Taliban regime. The anti-Taliban forces have been urging the United States to concentrate more firepower on such Taliban troops in the north.
Gen. Rashid Dostum, a Northern Alliance commander, said his forces have been holding talks with U.S. military personnel this week near the strategic northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif, just south of the border with Uzbekistan, where U.S. forces are stationed.
Dostum said his discussions with the Americans centered on delivering humanitarian aid to Dara-e-Suf, an enclave of opposition resistance south of Mazar-e-Sharif.
U.S. Air Force C-17 cargo planes have dropped more than 500,000 ration packages in Afghanistan, but officials are hoping to make overland deliveries, which could get more aid to the needy more quickly.
For a second straight Friday, U.S. jets slowed the pace of their attacks on Muslims' weekly holy day, when the faithful gather in mosques for sermons. Overnight raids hit Kandahar and around the eastern city of Jalalabad, an area where al-Qaida has posts.
On the 13th day of airstrikes, U.S. jets pounded Kabul before dawn, then returned at midday to drop two more bombs.
Some residents of the capital used the lull in airstrikes yesterday to abandon their homes, gathering up belongings and children to find shelter away from what they feared were targets of more likely strikes.
Refugees streamed toward Afghanistan's borders by the thousands, taking advantage of an easing in round-the-clock U.S.-led airstrikes to escape Kandahar, which has been battered. A United Nations official said up to 80 percent of the half-million residents had fled Kandahar, site of the Taliban headquarters.
Yesterday, Iran's foreign minister rejected a U.S. proposal to consider including moderate members of the Taliban regime in any future Afghan government, calling the idea "unacceptable."
Russia and India, two allies of the United States in the fight against terrorism, added their voices in opposition to letting Taliban members into a broad-based coalition being considered to rule Afghanistan if the Taliban regime collapses.
Secretary of State Colin L. Powell had expressed a willingness to include Taliban members - if they accept the rights of others - when he met earlier this week with President Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan and discussed the future of Afghanistan.
Wire reports contributed to this article.