For the first time since military operations against Afghanistan's Taliban regime began, U.S. forces are using at least two bases in Pakistan, senior Pakistani intelligence and military sources said today.
According to these sources, U.S. helicopters and other supporting aircraft have arrived at a Pakistani military base at Jacobabad in central Sindh province and at a little-used airstrip at Pishin, northeast of Quetta only a few miles from the Afghan border.
The disclosures came a day after U.S. warplanes unleashed their heaviest attacks yet on the Afghan capital, Kabul. On Wednesday, the anti-Taliban opposition claimed that wholesale enemy defections had allowed it to sever a key north-south highway in Afghanistan.
On the fourth day of airstrikes Wednesday, U.S. aircraft flying day and night raids rocked the regions around Kandahar and Kabul, including areas just west of the capital where Osama bin Laden is believed to operate terrorist training camps.
The bombers also hit a Taliban garrison in the northern Afghanistan city of Mazar-i-Sharif, where the Afghan regime is locked in a struggle with the rebel coalition known as the Northern Alliance. Warplanes have bombed the city for three straight days.
Early today, a Pakistani military official who declined to be identified said the U.S. military presence in Pakistan is currently limited to the aircraft and their supporting crews and that no combat troops are present.
"They seem to be preparing for low-flying operations, perhaps for reconnaissance purposes," the source said. The airstrip at Pishin is only a few minutes' flying time to Afghanistan and is just 20 minutes by helicopter from the Taliban's spiritual capital, Kandahar.
Officially, the government was circumspect.
"Pakistan has given logistical support to the international community in its fight against terrorism," said Maj. Gen. Rashid Qureshi, a government spokesman. "We will continue to provide the support. We cannot comment on the technical nature and details of the support. We reiterate that no combat or offensive operations are being launched from Pakistan against Afghanistan."
Earlier this week, Pakistan's president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, said his country's participation in the coalition efforts would be limited to allowing use of its airspace, sharing intelligence and providing logistical support.
"At the moment," Musharraf said Monday after the first round of air attacks began, "whatever is going on is not from Pakistan." But he left the door open for possible further involvement.
The arrival of U.S. military personnel on Pakistani soil is likely to further anger religious extremists in the country who oppose the allied military operations. Since the airstrikes began Sunday, anti-American protesters have staged demonstrations across Pakistan, with the largest and most violent in the borderlands neighboring Afghanistan.
The airstrip in Pishin is in an area with large concentrations of Afghan refugees who strongly support the Taliban regime.
The Dawn newspaper, based in Karachi, Pakistan, reported in today's edition that Pakistani military authorities had taken control of four airports in Sindh, Baluchistan and Punjab provinces and suspended commercial flights at them.
Dawn reported that the other bases involved are in Pasni and Gwadar near a large Pakistani naval base, Panjgur, 100 miles northeast of Gwadar, and Dera Ghazi Khan, about 200 miles east of Quetta and 150 miles from the Afghan border.
In a telephone interview, Dawn reporter Shamim Shansi said about 2,000 Pakistani army troops had sealed off the commercial airport at Jacobabad.
U.S. officials have repeatedly suggested that the next phase of military operations in Afghanistan could include the dropping of small special forces units to hunt Bin Laden, the prime suspect in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks against the United States.
Pakistani military authorities declined to officially confirm any of the U.S. deployments.
Bush Names 'Most Wanted' Terrorists
In Washington on Wednesday, President Bush issued a list of 22 "most wanted" international terrorists, headed by Bin Laden. Administration officials said they hoped that publicizing the terrorists' names and photographs would generate fresh intelligence that could lead to their capture.
The White House also called on television networks to use caution in broadcasting videotaped statements by Bin Laden, saying they could incite violence against Americans and might even contain coded instructions for terrorist acts.
In the Persian Gulf nation of Qatar, an organization of 56 Islamic countries, with delegates including Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, expressed sympathy for victims of the Sept. 11 attacks and implicitly supported the U.S. campaign against terrorism.
The American airstrikes on Afghanistan are aimed at flushing out and capturing or killing Bin Laden and his associates in the Al Qaeda organization. The U.S. has also targeted the Taliban, the ruling Islamic fundamentalist regime, which has given shelter to Bin Laden.
That has put the United States on common ground with the Northern Alliance, a coalition of ethnic groups from northern Afghanistan that opposes Taliban rule and is in control of about 10% of the country.
The rebels said Wednesday that the near-total destruction of Taliban air defenses--a prime target of the bombing campaign--and the defection of commanders along a major north-south highway have left about 20,000 Taliban troops in northern Afghanistan effectively cut off from the south.
The claim could not be independently verified.
A Northern Alliance commander, Gen. Abdul Basir, 36, said the supply route was severed when a 1,200-strong Taliban force defected and fired on a Taliban truck Tuesday, killing about 20 fighters.
The attack occurred north of Dowshi, on the main north-south highway from Kabul to Mazar-i-Sharif.
"We wanted to close the road and we did so," Basir said. "It's of huge significance. It will cut the country in two."
The severing of the route will force the Taliban to use a circuitous path and leaves a large bloc of Taliban fighters stranded between hostile forces.
"Now the Taliban does not have a way to resupply the forces in the north, by air or by road," said Mohammed Hashad Saad, a representative of Afghanistan's government-in-exile in Tashkent, Uzbekistan. Members of the Northern Alliance ruled Afghanistan until they were ousted by the Taliban in 1996.
Saad said the rebels are planning to attack the Taliban in three areas of northern Afghanistan, including Mazar-i-Sharif. "The Taliban will be surrounded and cut off," he said. "There will be no place to go."
Saad said the Taliban has already suffered many casualties from the bombing raids.
Gains by the Northern Alliance would pose potential problems for the United States in holding together the broad diplomatic coalition supporting the bombing. The Northern Alliance is distrusted by many Afghans and is strongly opposed by Pakistan, which has emerged as a staunch U.S. ally in the fight against terrorism.
One Northern Alliance commander, Gen. Bobojan, described Pakistan's policy as "two-faced" and said he fears a conspiracy between Pakistan and the United States to prevent the opposition from breaking through the Taliban front line and advancing on Kabul.
Pentagon officials took pains Wednesday to make clear that while America supports the Afghan opposition, U.S. aims and those of the Northern Alliance are not identical. The officials said U.S. forces have hit some targets that the rebels wanted attacked, such as Taliban troops massed near Mazar-i-Sharif, while declining to strike others.
Bombs Target Suspected Terrorist Training Camps
Wednesday night's bombing was described as the strongest so far against Kabul, targeting a Taliban military academy, artillery units and suspected terrorist training camps. There were also reports of attacks on the Taliban stronghold of Kandahar, home of Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar.
A Pentagon official said two male relatives of Omar, along with several other Taliban leaders, were killed Sunday when U.S. planes bombed Omar's compound in Kandahar.
Because the combat zone is inaccessible to Western news media, reporters have been unable to verify independently information provided by the Pentagon or Taliban reports of civilian casualties.
As the strikes have gradually destroyed the larger fixed targets throughout Afghanistan, such as airfields and radio towers, the military has scaled back the size of the raids--from 40 bombers on Sunday to between 13 and 18 on Tuesday. No figures were provided for Wednesday's assaults.
At the same time, Pentagon officials said, the military is stepping up attacks on smaller mobile targets, trying to track and destroy elusive Taliban and Al Qaeda leaders and their remaining forces.
Instead of setting targets before warplanes begin their missions, ground controllers have been sending fresh targeting information to the planes as they approach the battle zone.
Many of the Taliban and Al Qaeda forces are hunkered down under cover in Afghanistan's rugged landscape. But U.S. strategists are hoping that with continuing strikes, they can force them to move and then can use fresh intelligence for follow-up strikes.
With improved targeting technology, pilots can quickly alter their attack plans in flight, Pentagon officials said.
Intelligence on targets can come from other pilots or troops on the ground, officials said. But the most fruitful source is unmanned drone aircraft, which can relay detailed images, analysts said.
Pilots Switch Targets in Mid-Flight
On Tuesday night, in a conversation with reporters, a navigator on an Air Force bomber told how he and his fellow crew members had repeatedly reprogrammed their bombs with fresh targeting information in search of better targets.
Rear Adm. Stephen Baker, a retired Navy pilot, said such techniques have been under development for years and are helping solve a problem that embarrassed the military during the 1991 Persian Gulf War, when allied bombers could not find the mobile Scud missile launchers with which Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein terrorized allied forces and Israel.
"I think we're going to see some fairly good success doing this in the next weeks," said Baker, now an official at the Center for Defense Information in Washington.
Defense officials said U.S. warplanes may also begin using heavy "bunker buster" bombs designed to destroy deeply buried bunkers, as well as cluster bombs used against concentrations of troops and vehicles.
On Tuesday, two Air Force C-17 cargo planes dropped 35,000 packets of humanitarian food rations in north-central Afghanistan, and another airdrop was planned for Wednesday, officials said.
The U.S. has also been building up ground forces in the region, including 1,000 soldiers in Uzbekistan, a former Soviet republic on Afghanistan's northern border.
The U.S. has received permission from Uzbek President Islam Karimov to operate search and rescue missions and provide humanitarian aid from bases in his country. However, the forces there are operating in secrecy amid speculation that their mission could evolve into a more active role. Some of the U.S. troops sent to Uzbekistan reportedly have special-forces training.
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Tempest and Marshall reported from Islamabad. Dixon reported from Afghanistan. Times staff writers Paul Richter in Washington, Richard C. Paddock in Uzbekistan, T. Christian Miller in Qatar and Mitchell Landsberg and Miles Corwin in Los Angeles contributed to this report.