WASHINGTON - American Special Forces teams are now operating on the ground with rebel forces in southern Afghanistan as the United States intensifies its campaign against the Taliban and Osama bin Laden's terrorist network, Pentagon officials said yesterday.
"We're tightening the noose; it's a matter of time," said Army Gen. Tommy Franks, the commander of U.S. troops in the region.
The fighting between Northern Alliance and Taliban forces was said to be fierce yesterday around the northern town of Kunduz, while Pashtun tribes continued to rise up against the Taliban in and around Kandahar, officials said.
"Kandahar is still very much under [Taliban] control," Franks told reporters at the Pentagon, "although we do see some signs of fracturing there as well." Opposition forces now control as much as 60 percent of the country, he said.
Backed by U.S. warplanes, the alliance laid siege to Kunduz, where the defenders include an estimated 2,000 to 3,000 foreigners loyal to bin Laden, the suspected mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center in New York.
In the south, the Taliban clung to tenuous control of the organization's birthplace, Kandahar. Opposition leader Hamed Karzai said his sources told him there was "turmoil" in the city; other sources said local Pashtun tribesmen had surrounded the city.
A U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said there were spurts of fighting near the city center as the Pashtun fighters advanced. Most of Kandahar province, outside of the city, is in the hands of anti-Taliban rebels, he said.
Franks said that dozens of U.S. Special Forces troops are now working with Pashtun tribes in the south, offering advice and arms to the tribal leaders who are battling Taliban forces in Kandahar.
"We do have some of these teams with opposition groups in the south," said Franks, the architect of the military campaign in Afghanistan. "They provide advice, they facilitate resupply activities. ... They offer arms as well."
For several days, the special operators - including Army Green Berets and Air Force commandos dressed in local garb - have been linking up with the local tribes. They have also been watching roads, interdicting enemy troops and calling in airstrikes against the positions of the Taliban regime and bin Laden's al-Qaida network in and around Kandahar.
The Special Forces offered similar assistance to the Northern Alliance and were seen as key to the swift victories by Alliance forces during the past week in the cities of Mazar-e Sharif and Kabul, said Pentagon officials.
Last night, Vice President Dick Cheney provided an especially upbeat appraisal of the war effort.
He said, "Our military has destroyed training camps. Their communications and air defenses are in ruins. Their defenses are being systematically eliminated. Whole cities are free again. A large portion of the country can now celebrate the Taliban's departure from their lands and from their lives. The rest of the country is counting the hours."
Cheney cautioned that the battle was not over, but added: "As we speak the Taliban are high-tailing it to safer ground. They will find none. No matter how long it takes, Afghanistan will cease to be a haven for tyranny and terror."
Pentagon officials said American warplanes flew about 136 sorties Wednesday, a higher number than in previous days. Bombing runs on houses in Kabul and Kandahar killed al-Qaida and Taliban leaders, officials reported, but they added that bin Laden and the Taliban supreme leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar, were still alive.
Omar defiantly told the BBC yesterday, "The situation in Afghanistan is part of a big plan including the destruction of the United States." And the Pakistan-based Afghan Islamic Press quoted Taliban spokesman Mullah Abdullah as saying bin Laden "has already decided that death will be preferable to being arrested by America."
While fewer than 200 Special Operations troops are estimated to be working throughout Afghanistan, Franks said he would not rule out large numbers of ground troops in any future military operations.
"We will not take the issue of conventional forces off the table," he said. "This certainly remains an option."
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, at the Pentagon with Franks, said U.S. soldiers might be involved in repairing Afghan airports for military operations or assisting in humanitarian operations, though he shied away from any peacekeeping role.
"In terms of taking U.S. forces and having them become a part of a semi-permanent peacekeeping activity in the country, I think that's highly unlikely," he said.
But Cheney, in an interview with the BBC, held open the possibility that U.S. troops might be involved in maintaining security in areas vacated by the Taliban.
Britain has offered thousands of troops that could be sent into liberated areas of Afghanistan to provide security. About 100 British troops landed at Bagram airport outside Kabul yesterday to take part in humanitarian efforts.
Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said large amounts of humanitarian aid would soon start flowing into Afghanistan by road from Uzbekistan. Although 1.5 million daily rations have been dropped by U.S. cargo planes, Pentagon officials and relief agencies have said that only by operating on the ground can enough food and aid get into the country to feed the millions in need.
"This is exactly the right time of year to get supplies in there, to help those that don't have enough food or the clothing or the blankets to make it through the winter," Myers told a national security conference in Washington.
There are additional U.S. troops heading into the region in the coming weeks, including more than 2,000 Marines with the USS Bataan amphibious group that is now in the Mediterranean and 2,500 soldiers from the 1st Cavalry Division at Fort Hood, Texas.
The Army troops are heading to Kuwait to take part in exercises and serve as a deterrent to possible military moves by Iraq. But Pentagon officials said they could be used in Afghanistan if needed.
Meanwhile, Franks said that the military is planning to check possible chemical, biological and nuclear sites that might have been operated by bin Laden and his network. Intelligence reports over the past few months offered some clues to where such sites might be, he said.
"Now we are about the business of checking those sites out as they fall ... under our control," he said.
A senior defense official said recently that al-Qaida likely has a "crude" chemical and possibly biological capability. If the network has a nuclear capability, it would likely be a device that does not explode but spreads radiological material that could be lethal, the official said.
Along those same lines, there were news reports yesterday that blueprints or papers relating to a nuclear device were found at a house in Kabul believed to have been used al-Qaida members.
While the military campaign against the Taliban and al-Qaida continues, both U.S. and allied officials have started to put together the outlines of a post-Taliban government in Afghanistan.
There are some concerns that the sudden entrance of Northern Alliance forces into Kabul could hinder plans to come up with a government that includes all ethnic groups.
The Alliance, which is largely made up of ethnic Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras, is bitterly opposed by the Pashtuns, who are the largest ethnic group in the country, comprising about 38 percent of the population.
National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice said yesterday that President Bush and Russian President Vladimir V. Putin discussed the issue at the president's ranch in Crawford, Texas.
"They talked about continuing the message to the Northern Alliance about a broad-based government," she said.
Britain moved swiftly to get a Western diplomatic presence in Kabul, appointing an envoy who will move into the British Embassy there. American officials were weighing last night whether to send in their own representative. James Dobbins, a special U.S. envoy working on putting together a post-Taliban government, is now in Islamabad, the capital of Pakistan.
The Taliban also has had to deal with dwindling ranks. Several reports of defections of commanders and troops have accompanied the Taliban's retreat this week. Yesterday, a U.S. official said that some Taliban leaders have been captured. He did not provide names or numbers.
Senior Bush administration officials indicated yesterday that the war on terrorism would continue to root out al-Qaida cells around the world.
"Clearly, the United States has every intention of trying to deal, in whatever way is appropriate, with the terrorist networks that exist around the world," said Rumsfeld. "And ... al-Qaida alone has 40, 50 or 60 cells."
Mark Matthews of The Sun's Washington Bureau and wire services contributed to this article.