Washington — American and British forces unleashed punishing air strikes Sunday against military targets and Osama bin Laden's training camps inside Afghanistan, aiming at terrorists blamed for the Sept. 11 attacks that murdered thousands in New York and Washington.
"We will not waver, we will not tire," said President Bush, speaking from the White House as Tomahawk cruise missiles and bombs found targets halfway around the globe. "We will not falter, and we will not fail."
The opening of a sustained campaign dubbed "Enduring Freedom," the assault was accompanied by airdrops of thousands of vitamin-enriched food rations for needy civilians and by a ground-based attack by Afghan opposition forces against the ruling Taliban.
In a chilling threat, bin Laden vowed defiantly that "neither America nor the people who live in it will dream of security before we live it in Palestine, and not before all the infidel armies leave the land of Mohammad." That was an apparent reference to Israel and Saudi Arabia. He spoke in a videotaped statement prepared before the attacks, but both he and the leader of the Taliban ruling council of Afghanistan were reported to have survived the initial aerial assault.
In a fresh reminder of the potential for renewed terrorist attacks, the FBI said it was urging law enforcement agencies nationwide to "be at the highest level of vigilance and be prepared to respond to any act of terrorism or violence."
Bush gave the final go-ahead for the strike on Saturday, less than four weeks after terrorists flew two hijacked airplanes into the World Trade Center twin towers and a third into the Pentagon. A fourth plane crashed in the Pennsylvania countryside after an apparent struggle between passengers and terrorists on board.
In addition to the Sept. 11 death toll estimated at more than 5,000 the attacks dealt a shuddering blow to Americans' feeling of security, and propelled an already weakened economy toward recession.
Bringing down the Taliban
Bush said the military action was "designed to clear the way for sustained, comprehensive and relentless operations" to bring the terrorists to justice.
Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., said the ultimate goal is to bring down the Taliban, allowing Afghan rebels to assume power and "tighten the noose" around bin Laden. "It would be better if the Afghan people could bring him down," said Levin, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
"I know many Americans feel fear today." Bush, in his nationally televised announcement from the White House Treaty Room.
Signs of heightened security concerns were evident, as officials took Vice President Dick Cheney from his residence to an undisclosed secure location, security was stepped up around the Capitol and government nuclear weapons labs were put on higher alert. The FBI said it was acting on the basis of "the possibility of additional terrorist activity occurring somewhere in the world."
In Saudi Arabia, the U.S. Embassy remained closed today, and authorities cautioned Americans to "review their own security precautions."
Public support strong
Within hours of the attacks, Bush drew public support from foreign leaders around the world including a statement from the Russian Foreign Ministry. Congressional leaders chorused their approval, as did the American public.
A crowd of 64,000 cheered the president's words at Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia, where the beginning of a professional football game was delayed so the fans could view Bush's appearance on the big screen scoreboard. Chants of "USA, USA" filled another stadium, this one in Atlanta.
The initial strike involved 50 Tomahawk cruise missiles, launched from American and British ships. Gen. Richard Myers said 15 bombers and 25 strike aircraft, both sea and land-based, also were involved. The assault came at 12:30 p.m. EDT nighttime in Afghanistan.
Myers, sworn into office as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff less than a week ago, said the attacks included B-1, B-2 and B-52 bombers as well as ships and submarines that have been deployed in the region in the days since Sept. 11.
The B-52s dropped at least dozens of 500-pound gravity bombs on al-Qaida terrorist training camps in eastern Afghanistan, one official said.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said the strikes were designed to eliminate the Taliban's air defenses and destroy their military aircraft. Afghanistan's rulers are known to have a small inventory of surface-to-air missiles as well as shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles.
Afghan sources in Pakistan said the attack had damaged the Taliban military headquarters and destroyed a radar installation and control tower at the airport in the southern Afghan city of Kandahar. Smoke could be seen billowing from the high-walled compound of Mullah Mohammed Omar, the Taliban leader, these sources added.
One Pentagon official said that while highly visible attacks were being carried out, other operations would not be seen publicly. Officials have said previously that U.S. special forces have been operating inside Afghanistan.
Roughly an hour after the first volley of cruise missiles, Taliban forces came under attack from the northern alliance, Afghan opposition forces who fired multiple-rocket launchers from an air base about 25 miles north of Kabul.
A spokesman at the Afghan Embassy in Tajikistan, a nation that does not recognize the Taliban as rulers of Afghanistan, said that the opposition could make an attempt to enter Kabul, the capital. Asked when, he said perhaps in days or a week.
Bush spoke less than an hour after the first explosion could be heard in Kabul, followed by the sounds of anti-aircraft fire. Power went off throughout the city almost immediately after the first of five thunderous blasts.
The president said the military strike would be accompanied by the delivery of food, medicine and other supplies needed to sustain the people of Afghanistan. Pentagon officials said the yellow plastic packets, dropped by C-17 cargo planes, are about the size and weight of a hardcover book. They have a picture of a smiling person eating from a pouch and a stencil of an American flag. "This food is a gift from the United States of America," says the inscription, in English.
Bush said the military effort was only part of a campaign against terrorism, "another front in a war that has already been joined through diplomacy, intelligence, the freezing of financial assets and arrests of known terrorists by law enforcement agents in 38 countries."
"We did not ask for this mission, but we will fulfill it," he said.
"We are supported by the collective will of the world," Bush added. He said Canada, Australia, Germany and France have "pledged forces as the operation unfolds," and numerous other countries have granted air transit or landing rights. Still more nations are providing intelligence, he said.
To help sustain the coalition, officials said Bush was sending Secretary of State Colin Powell to Pakistan and India in the next few days. Pakistan has emerged as a key ally in the war on terrorism. India, in turn, has expressed concern lest the United States begin to favor Pakistan in a long-term struggle over the disputed territory of Kashmir.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair offered strong support in a speech to his own nation. He said of the Taliban, "They were given the choice of siding with justice or siding with terror. They chose to side with terror."