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Archive for Wednesday, February 20, 2002

U.S. Joint Chiefs chairman denies military role broadening

February 20, 2002

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— The top U.S. general denied reports that American troops had been drawn into supporting the U.S.-allied government against Afghan factions.

Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Wednesday that a round of weekend airstrikes had been in defense of American troops and not directed against Afghan factions.

"The goals haven't changed and that's to eliminate the Taliban and al-Qaida," Myers told reporters at the U.S.-controlled base at Kandahar.

On Monday, The New York Times reported that U.S. warplanes last weekend flew bombing raids that Afghan commanders in the area said were aimed at warring militia forces rather than the Taliban or al-Qaida.

According to the newspaper, the bombing raids marked the first time U.S. airpower had been used in defense of the government of interim Prime

Minister Hamid Karzai against opposing Afghan factions.

Despite talk of a "change in policy, there is no change in policy," Myers said.

Myers talked to reporters after meeting with troops and commanders at the U.S.-held airport in the southern city of Kandahar, U.S.-allied forces' largest base in Afghanistan.

Stops earlier Wednesday took him to Kabul for talks with Afghan leaders and to the Bagram airport north of the capital a key installation in operations by covert forces hunting for Taliban and al-Qaida renegades.

During last weekend's action, U.S. forces called in American bombers after a patrol of local Afghan government forces came under fire outside the eastern town of Khost.

When a larger contingent of Afghan soldiers went out again with Americans, they were also fired on, according to U.S. officials. Defense officials said FA-18 fighter jets and a B-1 bomber carried out repeated bombing raids in response.

"U.S. forces were fired upon and returned fire ... including airstrikes," Myers said. "Under the rules of engagement they operate under, it was appropriate."

Defense authorities say they don't know who fired.

Myers declined to say how much longer U.S. troops would stay in Afghanistan. "If I put a time line on it, I'd be wrong," he said.

"There's still a mission here in Afghanistan. There's still significant pockets of resistance of al-Qaida and Taliban," Myers said, although saying he believed al-Qaida's network had been greatly "disrupted."

Troops here number over 4,000, including forces of a number of coalition nations. Since December, U.S. Marines and then Army soldiers have steadily turned the airport into a heavily defended U.S.-led base, with foxholes, bunkers and barbed wire, watch towers, and, as of Wednesday, a mess hall capable of serving hot meals to 2,000 soldiers a day.

Although the prime mission remains rooting out al-Qaida and Taliban holdouts, Myers said the United States wants to help train the new Afghan army and help the country rebuild after 23 years of conflict.

"We want to leave here, as best you can, a secure environment so people can prosper," he said.

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