KANDAHAR, Afghanistan - Backed by helicopter gunships and Harrier jets, a convoy carrying about 200 U.S. Marines rumbled out of Kandahar before dawn yesterday to secure an abandoned Taliban compound in what amounted to the most extensive U.S. ground operation in the war.
The Marines headed west of Kandahar, the former Taliban stronghold, into neighboring Helmand province, which has become the focus of U.S. military activity in recent days. Until now, the Marines had been largely restricted to Kandahar's airport and a desert base southwest of here, reflecting U.S. concerns that ground operations would increase the possibility of casualties.
Army special operations troops are also working with Afghan fighters to search for Mullah Mohammed Omar, the Taliban leader, in the mountainous region of Baghran in northern Helmand province, where perhaps as many as 2,000 Taliban soldiers are hiding. The Pentagon is considering sending a larger number of ground troops, possibly Marines, to Baghran to help hunt for Omar.
Taliban surrender weapons
Afghan officials said yesterday that the Taliban holdouts in Baghran had begun surrendering weapons and vehicles, according to an agreement that is supposed to lead to a full surrender this week.
Some Afghan commanders said they were unsure of Omar's location. But Hajji Gullalai, the regional intelligence director, said he was negotiating with people close to Omar over his surrender.
"We know where Mullah Mohammed Omar is," he said in an interview outside his office yesterday. "We have some demands, and the Taliban have some objections. They have some demands, and we have some objections. But I'm confident the negotiations will be successful." He did not say whether Omar was in Baghran.
Senior Pentagon officials say "a body of evidence" indicated Omar was in the Baghran area. For that reason, U.S. military officers in Kandahar have been pressing Gul Agha Shirzai, the U.S.-backed warlord who controls the region, to mount an offensive against the Taliban holdouts, offering the assistance of U.S. commandos, warplanes and possibly other combat troops.
The mission in Baghran, however, suggests diverging interests between the Americans and Afghans. As President Bush indicated Monday, capturing Omar remains a priority for the United States, particularly because the trail of al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden appears to have grown cold. The Pentagon has drawn criticism for not having posted U.S. ground troops in the Tora Bora region to prevent Taliban and al-Qaida fighters from fleeing.
But as in Tora Bora, where Afghan fighters showed little interest in searching through the mountains and caves for Taliban and al-Qaida members, the Afghans here have displayed little interest in hunting for Omar and other senior Taliban in Baghran. When Gullalai said Dec. 17 that Omar was in Baghran, he also said seizing him was not a priority for Shirzai.
At the Kandahar airport base, Col. Andrew Frick, commander of the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit, said yesterday morning the Marines had left Kandahar in the night, accompanied by Shirzai's soldiers. He said the Marines had secured their location - a sprawling Taliban compound with 14 buildings - without encountering hostility, and were expected to return by this morning.
Frick suggested the compound was in a rural area near the main highway that cuts across southern Afghanistan. He said no Marines were in Baghran, which is in a remote, mountainous area about 100 miles north of the highway.
Al-Qaida evidence sought
Officials with the U.S. Central Command in Tampa, Fla., said the compound probably was also used by al-Qaida forces who might have left behind documents, videotapes or computers that could shed light on the terrorist network's activities. The Marines mainly provided security, while Shirzai's soldiers combed the buildings for such materials, the officials said.
U.S. forces have canvassed about a dozen locations that had been occupied by the Taliban or al-Qaida in the region, Frick said. But he added that the size of the area required sending that large a Marine force for the first time.
There had been reports by U.S. news photographers in Kandahar that the Marines had left for Helmand province by helicopter Monday, possibly to assist in an attack on Baghran. But the Central Command said yesterday that those helicopters were probably carrying Marines to ships offshore or to another Marine base southwest of Kandahar.
The Afghans in Kandahar - who are of the same Pashtun ethnic group as most of the Taliban - have favored negotiations over fighting.