WASHINGTON - Pentagon officials said yesterday that additional U.S. troops, including Army and Marine units, will beef up the American presence in the region around Afghanistan during the next several weeks.
The officials also acknowledged for the first time that several dozen Special Operations forces are active in the southern part of the country, the stronghold of the Taliban regime and the terrorist al-Qaida network.
In addition, in the wake of fast-paced advances by the opposition Northern Alliance, the officials announced that they will focus on repairing airfields inside the country and opening up a land bridge to Uzbekistan to accelerate the movement of humanitarian aid.
At the United Nations, diplomats rushed to catch up with developments on the ground, preparing plans to send an international security force from Muslim countries as well as U.N. civilian workers into areas taken by the Northern Alliance.
Meeting at the White House, President Bush and Russian President Vladimir V. Putin reaffirmed their support for the Northern Alliance, referring to the opposition forces as liberators, but said any future government must "represent all Afghans, men and women, and be drawn from all ethnic groups."
In a joint statement, the United States and Russia agreed that the Taliban "as a movement" should not be part of the new government, leaving open the possibility that individuals from the Taliban might be included.
Although the Northern Alliance had gone against a Bush demand that it not enter Kabul, Bush cited reports that the rebels' advance in the north of Afghanistan was a "joyous occasion" for people of the area, who were suddenly "free from a dictatorial government."
"This has been one of the most repressive regimes in the history of mankind," Bush said of the Taliban. "We will continue to work with Northern Alliance commanders to make sure they respect the human rights of the people that they're liberating," he added.
"The Northern Alliance, with whom President Putin has got some influence and I've got some influence, has told us both they have no intention of occupying - and they have said this publicly - they intend not to occupy Kabul, which is fine. That's the way it ought to be," Bush said.
Putin defended the alliance's rush into Kabul, saying "they had to insert there certain security elements to prevent looting and robberies and murders."
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld cautioned that despite the recent victories by the rebel troops, the military campaign against the Taliban and al-Qaida is far from over.
"If they reorganize in the south, we're going to go get them. If they go to ground, we will ... root them out," he said. "We are clearly in this for the long haul. We do need to find the leadership of al-Qaida and the leadership of the Taliban."
Putin, for his part, called the Taliban's southern retreat "a cunning move" to try to preserve their manpower and equipment. "Quite a serious amount of work is still ahead," he said. "They did not disappear, they just moved out of the city."
Lakhdar Brahimi, the special U.N. envoy for Afghanistan, urged the Security Council to send an "international security presence," with "adequately trained and armed units" that could ensure order and civilian safety in the major cities while negotiations continue on a post-Taliban government.
Turkey, Indonesia, Bangladesh and Jordan have offered troops. Brahimi recommended that this force, if created, remain only until an all-Afghan peacekeeping force could be readied.
Brahimi strongly urged the Security Council not to send a formal U.N. peacekeeping force. Unless there is a credible cease-fire, he said, such a force could quickly end up engaged in fighting.
Meanwhile, more than 2,000 Marines who are part of the USS Bataan amphibious group in the Mediterranean Sea are to head into the Arabian Sea in the coming days to join the estimated 2,000 Marines already there, aboard the USS Peleliu. And 2,500 soldiers from the Army's 1st Cavalry Division at Fort Hood, Texas, will deploy to Kuwait in the coming weeks, officials said.
The Army troops, an official said, are being deployed to serve as "a more robust deterrent to Iraq," meaning to discourage Saddam Hussein's forces from any move to take advantage of the U.S. focus on Afghanistan in order to once more threaten Kuwait.
While the soldiers are part of a rotation of units in Kuwait, Pentagon officials said the number of troops being deployed is more than twice the usual complement.
The Marine units could mount helicopter-borne raids into Afghanistan, said current and retired military officers. They will also bring light tanks and armored personnel carriers that could be used for powerful, sustained attacks.
"This gives you the ability to go in and strike with a sizable force," said one military officer. So far, the only U.S. ground action in Afghanistan came last month when more than 100 Army Rangers and other Special Operations forces raided two locations outside Kandahar.
Defense officials also said yesterday that at least one former Soviet base in Tajikistan will be used to launch airstrikes, likely with F-15s and F-16s, against Taliban and al-Qaida positions.
That base will allow U.S. pilots to mount a greater number of strikes against emerging targets, such as convoys or troops. Now pilots must fly great distances from neighboring countries and carriers in the Arabian Sea.
Moreover, ground troops will be needed to secure the land route from Uzbekistan and the airports in northern Afghanistan, Rumsfeld said, although he declined to be specific.
"Whether they'll be U.S. or some other country's is one of the questions that's open," he said. Besides dozens of U.S. Special Forces operating throughout Afghanistan, there are already more than 1,000 troops from the 10th Mountain Division at an air base in southern Uzbekistan.
Rumsfeld and other officials already have talked about opening a land bridge to Uzbekistan, about 45 miles north of Mazar-e Sharif. Yesterday, he also said an airport near that city and another outside Kabul would probably be used, once the bomb damage from U.S. attacks is repaired.
Although more than 1 million daily food rations have been dropped by U.S. cargo planes, relief officials say a more sustained and extensive effort to feed and house the hundreds of thousands of refugees is needed as winter approaches.
Special Operations forces have been in the north for weeks, calling in airstrikes and facilitating the resupply of Northern Alliance forces, duties that officials said were crucial to the rebel victories. But Rumsfeld said the forces in the south are not working with the Pashtun tribes but are "currently functioning independently," declining to be more specific.
"They are doing things that are helpful to our side and unhelpful to the other side," he said.
Rumsfeld said he hoped that as there was more successes in the north, "some of the tribes in the south will decide to become more active." U.S. intelligence operatives have been trying to line up tribal leaders with, at best, limited success.
Last week, Rumsfeld said one guerrilla fighter, Hamed Karzai, was recently whisked out of southern Afghanistan into Pakistan by a U.S. Army helicopter after Taliban forces closed in. But Karzai denied that he ever left the country and has tried to distance himself from the United States as he tries to build support in the area.
"It's a wait and see whether any tribal leaders will emerge," said Stephen P. Cohen, a foreign policy analyst at the Brookings Institution.
The Pashtuns, the largest ethnic group in Afghanistan, are bitterly opposed to the Northern Alliance, which is largely made up of Uzbeks and Tajiks. The Northern Alliance also came under sharp criticism for alleged human rights abuses, including attacks on civilians, during fighting in the early 1990s.
Yesterday, as Northern Alliance forces streamed into Kabul, there were local reports of Taliban prisoners being executed. Similar reports came from Mazar-e Sharif.
Rumsfeld bristled when asked about the reports and said he couldn't verify them. U.S. Special Operations soldiers were with the alliance troops in Kabul but have yet to file their accounts, he said.
The defense secretary hastened to add that the Taliban "killed hundreds and hundreds and hundreds" of people when they took Kabul in 1996.
Brahimi, the U.N. special envoy, said control of the capital, Kabul, has "immense symbolic value." Many Afghans want the city demilitarized and not controlled by any single faction. Brahimi said he planned to call a meeting soon that would pull together all the various efforts under way to form a post-Taliban government.