WASHINGTON - The airborne commando raid into southern Afghanistan attacked a military airfield and a headquarters compound of Mullah Muhammad Omar, the Taliban's leader, in a daring strike to uncover information about the location and activities of Taliban and al-Qaeda leaders, the Pentagon said yesterday.
The predawn assault conducted in at least two locations about 60 miles apart by more than 100 Army Ranger paratroopers and helicopter-borne Special Forces troops had two primary objectives, military officials said.
First, helicopters from the carrier Kitty Hawk off Pakistan whisked Special Operations forces to Omar's compound of buildings and bunkers in Kandahar, the city that is the Taliban's spiritual center. The site had not been bombed, unlike many other leadership compounds, and elite commandos seized papers and other intelligence information that might reveal clues about Taliban operations and the whereabouts of Taliban leaders.
At the same time about 60 miles to the southwest, Army Rangers loaded aboard armed transport planes in nearby Oman parachuted into the second target, a remote airfield. Seizing the airport gave the military a good look at the runway and facilities for any military and humanitarian operations.
It also enabled the military to secure the airfield in case the operation at Omar's compound ran into trouble, and reinforcements or medical supplies needed to be rushed in.
In addition, the maneuvers showed the Taliban and al-Qaeda that the U.S. military can land and carry out operations on the ground in Afghanistan.
Finally, seizing the airfield was meant to be a confidence-building mission for the military and the American people. The Rangers left behind a calling card: 81/2 by 10-inch sheets that said “Freedom Endures,” with a picture of firemen raising the American flag at what appeared to be the World Trade Center.
At the news conference, Gen. Richard B. Myers, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, proclaimed the mission a success.
“We accomplished our objectives,” said General Myers.
Even so, military commanders had held out the slim hope that they might be able to capture Omar or one of his top lieutenants.
“We did not expect to find significant Taliban leadership at these locations,” the general said. “We, of course, were hoping we would, but we did not expect it, and we did not find senior Taliban or al-Qaeda leadership.”
Military officials said Special Forces from more than one service were involved in the first major American commando raid since Somalia nearly a decade ago.
Army Rangers, Green Berets, Navy Seals, Air Force Special Operations forces, and the elite Army Delta Force unit are believed to be on board the Kitty Hawk or operating elsewhere in the region.
Army Rangers have in the past operated in tandem with the Army's secret counterterrorist unit, Delta Force. For example the Rangers, the service's elite infantry, can create a flashy diversion so small Delta teams can carry out their mission. Or they can execute a more forceful entry than the Delta Force commandos could make themselves, given their small numbers.
In Kabul, Taliban officials branded the commando strikes a failure and a senior militia commander said Americans are too soft for a ground war in Afghanistan.
“The American air operation in Afghanistan has made no gain, and the helicopter operation has failed,” the Taliban's official Bakhtar news agency said
Mullah Amir Khan Muttaqi told al-Jazeera TV of Qatar that Taliban fighters drove off the Americans and “this commando attack has failed.”
“God willing,” he added, “all their aggressive plans will fail.”
Other Taliban figures also sought to project an image of strength.
In an interview with the Pakistani newspaper The News, Mullah Jalaluddin Haqqani, a major Taliban commander in the south, said the Americans could not withstand the rigors of a ground war in Afghanistan because “they are creatures of comfort.”
“We are eagerly awaiting the American troops to land on our soil, where we will deal with them in our own way,” Mullah Haqqani said. “The Americans will not be able to sustain the harsh conditions that await them.”
President Bush, speaking from an economic summit meeting in China, hinted at the true aim of the mission.
“We are destroying terrorist hideaways,” he said. “We are slowly but surely encircling the terrorists so that we can bring them to justice.”
Mr. Bush said that he mourned the loss of two servicemen killed in a helicopter accident related to the mission.
“There will be moments of sacrifice,” the President said.
Airstrikes resumed over Afghanistan yesterday as B-1 and B-52 bombers and carrier-based FA-18s and F-14s dropped laser-guided and satellite-guided bombs during daytime raids over Kabul, the capital, and Kandahar and Herat.
“It's the same level as it's been the past few days - robust,” said Rear Adm. Craig R. Quigley, a Pentagon spokesman.
Further airstrikes were reported early this morning.
The Pentagon said the two American servicemen killed in a supporting rescue mission had not crossed into Afghanistan. Defense officials said at least one person aboard the helicopter was injured in the accident.
They declined to say whether there were any American casualties in the commando raid, although all helicopters involved in the raid reported safely back to the carrier Kitty Hawk in the Arabian Sea.