Launching a new - and perhaps the final - phase in Washington's hunt for Osama bin Laden, US Marines are now establishing their first forward base in Afghanistan.
The new base - at a remote airstrip built and used by Mr. bin Laden - will serve as the staging post for US military efforts to find the Saudi fugitive. Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar and bin Laden are together in the Kandahar area, say Northern Alliance officials.
If bin Laden is spotted, this commitment of American ground troops will cut response times for US operations from hours to minutes. It also foreshadows sustained US search-and-destroy missions against Taliban forces. "This is a dangerous period ... a time when we are now hunting down the people who bombed America," said President Bush in Washington yesterday.
"Boots on the ground ... signals to America's enemies that the age of cruise-missile diplomacy is over," says Loren Thompson, a military analyst at the Lexington Institute in Arlington, Va. It shows the US is no longer constrained by the fear of losing American lives. "For years, Osama bin Laden made it clear that he didn't believe America would take the risk of sending in troops after him - and that this was his greatest advantage."
At a press briefing yesterday, US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld declined to elaborate on whether the new forward US base would be used to attack Taliban positions or be confined to hunting for bin Laden. He said that the base is well-positioned for interdicting supply routes in and out of Kandahar, and could be used for "humanitarian purposes, special forces, or the inflow of additional troops."
Under the cover of darkness Sunday night, the first 500 of as many as 1,000 US marines were ferried by helicopters to an airfield 65 miles southwest of Kandahar, birthplace the Taliban and the last major city under its control.
An estimated 12,000 Taliban soldiers and 5,000 troops of bin Laden's "foreign legion" are based in and around the ancient city where Alexander the Great once built a fortress.
"They picked this fight. You're going to finish it," the commanding officer of the battalion landing team, Lt. Col. Christopher Bourne, told marines before they boarded the helicopters, according to wire reports. He likened their mission to the landing at Guadalcanal 60 years ago, in response to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. "This is your Guadalcanal," he said.
The US marines - laden with gas masks, military gear, and with camoulfage paint on their faces - said they were ready yesterday. "We're all psyched up about actually going and getting some payback," said Jeff Feucht, from Minnesota, according to the Reuters news agency.
US military experts say that technology and terrain may give the marines certain advantages. In a largely defoliated area, the enemy can't move without detection, unless under cover of darkness. And even then, infrared and other sensors allow the marines to detect movement. In all, it's a far cry from the quagmire conditions of Vietnam, says says retired Army Maj. Gen. Edward Atkeson. "In Vietnam, the [enemy] could hide out under the trees, or use the Ho Chi Minh Trail for resupply, or count on friendly countries for support." None of those conditions exist in Afghanistan, he notes.
In concert with the US moves, ethnic Pashtun forces are also beginning a long-anticipated uprising to cut off and defeat the retreating Taliban units in the south. Alliance officials, alerted just hours before the American landing, rushed a handful of their own commanders, who have local ties in area, to the south to galvanize resistance. US aircraft are pounding positions in and around Kandahar.
The stated goal of this cooperative effort - continuing a strategy of close US military support for proxy Afghan forces - is the destruction of Afghanistan as a large-scale base for terrorism.
"The coming days will be very significant for the future of the Taliban," says Abdullah Abdullah, the alliance foreign minister. He predicts that local resistance against the Taliban will be "strong and widespread. People who didn't have a chance to resist will get that chance."
Mopping up operations continued in northern Afghanistan. Rebel Northern Alliance forces entered the northern Taliban pocket of Kunduz on Monday. After a brief battle, thousands of Taliban and foreign fighters surrendered.
In Mazar-e Sharif, five US servicemen were seriously injured when they called in US airstrikes during the effort to quell an uprising of Taliban prisoners Sunday. The soldiers have been evacuated to Uzbekistan. Mr. Rumsfeld said no US servicemen were killed, and indicated the fort where the uprising occurred is not yet secured.
Seven weeks of US air strikes and two weeks of Northern Alliance victories have ousted the Taliban from three-quarters of Afghanistan. Anti-Taliban Pashtun forces - from the same ethnic group that dominates the Taliban - are sniffing imminent victory and gearing up for war.
Their armed rebellion was a critical part of the American strategy weeks ago. But the assassination of a key anti-Taliban Pashtun leader early in the US campaign, and the reluctance of others in the face of a less-than-convincing start to the air war, had kept Pashtun warriors out of battle.
Now the tide is turning. On Friday, anti-Taliban units took the town of Takteh Pol, effectively cutting Kandahar's supply line to the critical border town of Spin Boldak and to Pakistan. Late yesterday, Taliban officials said a deal may have been struck for the peaceful handover of the border town.
"Everybody now is rising. I think everybody now is trying to have a piece of the Taliban," Ahmad Karzai, brother of Pashtun leader Hamid Karzai who is a supporter of former King Zahir Shah, told Reuters News Agency by satellite phone from central Afghanistan. "I won't predict anything in terms of time, but it [Kandahar] will definitely go."
Days of negotiations between Pashtun elders and the Taliban over the peaceful handover of Kandahar appear to have failed so far. The surrender of other Taliban towns is now being discussed.
The rapid collapse of the Taliban is no surprise to those who know the movement best, says Haji Mullah Khaksar, the Taliban deputy interior minister who defected to the alliance two weeks ago, in an interview.
"We can't deny it: all the world hated the Taliban," Mr. Khaksar says, wearing a dark Taliban turban with threads of white, and a long black beard. "The main Taliban mistake was all the restrictive rules, so the nation hated their government. When the people and government are far apart, the government will fall."
While applauding the Taliban for bringing security to the 95 percent of the country it controlled until early November - an achievement that is already violently unraveling on lawless, bandit-riddled roads in the east and south of the country - Khaksar blames the Taliban for permitting bin Laden loyalists to radicalize the Islamic movement.
"Afghanistan is being destroyed by [the Arabs]. Foreigners caused the destruction of our government," Khaksar says. The Taliban never sought to control the activities of bin Laden's Al Qaeda network, which boasts a "foreign legion from as far afield as Algeria and Bosnia, to Somalia and the Philippines."
While stopping short of calling the Taliban a terrorist organization - Khaksar was the intelligence minister when the Taliban took control of Kabul in 1996 - he says he understands the American resolve in toppling the regime.
"When America was blasted by these terrorists - when someone is hostile or an enemy - he is obliged to defend himself. American had to make an action," Khaksar says.
But there is a warning, too, from Northern Alliance foreign minister Abdullah, about the continued welcome for American troops in Afghanistan - a nation that historically has brutally opposed foreign forces of all kinds.
"The people of Afghanistan were hostages of the Taliban, and in a way, the Taliban invited foreign forces to come [because of their policies]," Abdullah says.
"Any attempt to position forces beyond the objective and aims of the terrorism campaign will be unwelcome."
Staff writer Abraham McLaughlin contributed to this report from Washington.