WASHINGTON - Pentagon officials said yesterday they were planning for "future military action" inside Afghanistan but were sketchy about the possible introduction of U.S. ground forces or support for the rebel groups fighting the ruling Taliban regime.
While Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and Air Force Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, outlined a second day of airstrikes against Taliban military targets and the terrorist camps of Osama bin Laden, they offered only the barest hints of what is to come.
"We'll use overt and covert military efforts," Rumsfeld said. Myers spoke of a continuing bombing campaign that will "set the conditions for future military action."
At the same time, they offered a preliminary damage assessment of the first day's strikes that seemed designed to lower expectations for a speedy conclusion to hostilities against the Taliban.
Rumsfeld cautioned that U.S. forces do not yet have air superiority over Afghanistan and that the military raids are "one small part" of a concerted global effort against terrorism.
Other countries, he said, will have to apply "continuous pressure" by sharing vital intelligence with the United States about terrorist networks. There is no "silver bullet," Rumsfeld said.
The defense secretary said it is doubtful that the bombing campaign will end Taliban rule.
"I think it's unlikely the airstrikes will rock the Taliban back on their heels," he said. "They have very few targets that are of high value that are manageable from the air."
Although there have been reports of U.S. special operations forces on the ground in Afghanistan, Pentagon officials have not officially confirmed the presence of such troops in the country.
And, while Rumsfeld said the United States is "working with elements on the ground that are interested in overthrowing and expelling" the Taliban, he refused to say what support - if any - the Bush administration is prepared to offer.
Representatives of the Northern Alliance, the main rebel group, are pressing the Bush administration for covering airstrikes and U.S. special operations forces to serve as advisers and target spotters as they prepare to mount a counterattack against the Taliban, perhaps in the coming days.
So far, they have received no word from the Bush administration, said Daoud Mir, a special envoy in Washington with the Northern Alliance, also known as the United Front. Mir said he and another envoy met last week with National Security Council staff members to plead their case.
"We asked primarily for financial aid, military supplies and humanitarian aid for Afghanistan," said Mir. "They said the U.S. has decided not only to help the United Front but also other factions. They didn't precisely tell me what kind of aid and when."
A White House spokesman confirmed that Northern Alliance representatives met with the NSC staff and "made several requests," but refused to say what they were or how the United States plans to respond.
Despite the refusal of U.S. officials to discuss the whereabouts of special operations forces, Mir said a small number are in Afghanistan with the Northern Alliance. The alliance has about 15,000 guerrillas fighting the estimated 45,000-man Taliban military.
The alliance, Mir said, would like more assistance from the commando forces in the rebels' drive against the Taliban.
"There is a presence of special forces in Afghanistan, but there are no other [U.S] forces," said Mir, who declined to say how many troops were there. "We need more special forces for the next step."
Mir said Northern Alliance forces are fighting the Taliban militia in several areas: north of Kabul, around the northern city of Mazar-e Sharif and in Takhar province in the northeastern part of the country.
Asked specifically about covering airstrikes for the Northern Alliance, Rumsfeld declined to answer, saying only that "the United States is interested in the elements of Afghans on the ground that have it in their mind that they would like to end [bin Laden's network] in Afghanistan and end the senior Taliban leadership role."
Rumsfeld also brushed aside a question on whether U.S. ground troops or just the Northern Alliance fighters would be needed in any future military operations, saying: "I wouldn't want to speculate on that."
The Northern Alliance has its own troubling record, facing accusations of human rights abuses and the killing of civilians and Taliban prisoners, according to human rights groups.
At the same time, the Pakistani government, which in the past has provided military and financial support to the Taliban, has said that the Northern Alliance is an unacceptable alternative. The United States is relying on Pakistan for intelligence information and flyover rights in the military campaign against the Taliban and bin Laden.
"I think we have to walk a very fine line," said one Pentagon official. "Pakistan is not enthralled with the Northern Alliance."
Stephen P. Cohen, a senior foreign policy fellow at the Brookings Institution who studies Pakistan, said the Pakistanis supported the Northern Alliance for a time in the early 1990s but found it ineffective in governing and "dumped them" for the Taliban, which took over Afghanistan in 1996.
Another reason for Pakistani support was ethnicity, Cohen said. The Taliban is made up of majority ethnic Pashtuns, who also inhabit a province in Pakistan. The Northern Alliance consists of the smaller ethnic groups of Uzbeks and Tajiks.
Cohen predicted that rather than support a single rebel group in Afghanistan, the United States might press for a conclave or meeting of all ethnic groups and rebels under United Nations auspices.
Meanwhile, U.S. strike aircraft, bombers and cruise missiles pounded terrorist training camps and Taliban military sites for a second night, Pentagon officials announced yesterday, saying the attacks would pave the way for continued overt and secret military operations as well as a larger humanitarian effort in Afghanistan.
Rumsfeld told reporters he was "generally pleased" with the preliminary results of Sunday's initial strikes against 31 targets belonging to bin Laden's terrorist network or to Afghanistan's ruling Taliban.
The defense secretary reiterated that the airstrikes were not targeting the civilian population, though there have been news reports of limited civilian casualties. The Reuters news agency quoted a senior Taliban official as saying that six to eight people had been killed in the first day's attacks, down from initial estimates of 20.
Rumsfeld said the campaign against terrorism would include diplomatic, economic, financial and law enforcement elements.
"It will likely be sustained over a period of years, not weeks and months," he said. "We will not stop until the terrorist networks are destroyed. To that end, regimes that harbor terrorists and their training camps will know that they will suffer."
Yesterday's attacks again targeted Taliban air defenses, command-and-control centers, aircraft and terrorist camps. Fifteen U.S. carrier- and land-based aircraft were used, together with 15 sea-launched cruise missiles. On Sunday, 40 strike aircraft and bombers were employed, with one British and five U.S. submarines firing 50 cruise missiles. The British did not take part in yesterday's strikes, officials said.
Officials have said privately that they expect the airstrikes to continue for a few days to a week.
"Regardless of the pounds of munitions or the scope of the targets, yesterday's strikes began setting the conditions for future operations," said Myers, the Joint Chiefs chairman. "We cannot yet state with certainty that we destroyed the dozens of military command-and-control and leadership targets we selected. We did destroy some of the terrorist infrastructure, and we did begin feeding and assisting the victims of the Taliban regime."
The Taliban militia has fired anti-aircraft artillery and Stinger shoulder-fired missiles at U.S. aircraft, said Myers, though none damaged or shot down any attack aircraft. There was no evidence that any of the Taliban's aging warplanes made it into the sky to engage U.S. fighters, Myers said.
For the second day, two C-17 transport planes from Ramstein Air Base in Germany dropped 37,000 individual meals to Afghan refugees in the northern part of the country, the same number that floated down by parachute on Sunday.