WASHINGTON -- The Pentagon confirmed the presence of American troops in northern Afghan-istan for the first time Tuesday and credited them with improving the effectiveness of U.S. bombing raids.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, who previously had refused to disclose such details, told a Pentagon news conference a "very modest" number of U.S. troops are advising forces opposed to the Taliban, coordinating resupply and helping direct U.S. airstrikes on Taliban targets.
Rumsfeld did not say which U.S. troops are in Afghanistan or how long they have been there, but from his description of their missions it seemed likely they include Army Special Forces, commonly called Green Berets. He said fewer than 100 are in Afghanistan.
A reporter at the press conference quoted critics who have called the U.S. military effort in Afghanistan halfhearted and misguided in its reluctance to commit ground troops.
"We do have a very modest number of ground troops in the country," Rumsfeld said. "They are there for liaison purposes and have been doing an excellent job of assisting with the coordination for resupply of various types, as well as targeting."
He said President Bush has not ruled out committing ground troops in numbers comparable to the 1991 Gulf War, when hundreds of thousands were deployed.
On Oct. 20 Rumsfeld announced that more than 100 Army Airborne Rangers and other special operations forces had raided Taliban targets in southern Afghanistan. Otherwise, he had said he could not discuss whether U.S. troops were operating inside Afghan-istan.
The Bush administration has come under increasing criticism in recent days for not doing more to destroy the Taliban militia and assist the loose alliance of opposition forces in the north. That alliance, with modest U.S. help, is hoping to win control of the crossroads city of Mazar-e-Sharif.
On the 24th day of the air campaign, British Defense Minister Geoffrey Hoon consulted with Rumsfeld at the Pentagon and told a joint news conference it would not be wise, from a military standpoint, to halt or limit the aerial bombardment during Ramadan, the Islamic holy month.
"It wouldn't make military sense to announce upfront what our intentions were during that period," Hoon said. "It certainly wouldn't make military sense to afford the Taliban regime, which has been under very considerable pressure in recent times, the opportunity of regrouping, reorganizing during a predictable period of time."
Rumsfeld expressed a similar view Monday, although President Bush has not announced his intentions.
In a review of recent military action in Afghanistan, Rear Adm. John Stufflebeem told reporters that on Monday about 70 combat planes hit 13 target areas in Afghanistan, including Taliban military command-and-control sites, airfields, Taliban field troops, and caves and tunnels used by the Taliban and the al-Qaida terrorist network to hide and store weapons and equipment. Stufflebeem is deputy director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Victoria Clarke, chief spokeswoman for Rumsfeld, said Tuesday's bombing plan called for using about 95 strike aircraft.
Rumsfeld said that about 80 percent of Tuesday's planned attacks were against Taliban forces in the field, a plan designed to help clear the way for advances by the northern alliance, which is facing off against Taliban troops near the Bagram front lines, about 25 miles north of Kabul.
U.S. airstrikes are also aimed at assisting the northern alliance in the struggle for control of Mazar-e-Sharif in the north, near the Uzbekistan border. The small number of U.S. ground troops are in this area.
"And because they are there now, the effort has improved in its effectiveness over what had been the case previously," Rumsfeld said.
Stufflebeem acknowledged that having U.S. troops on the ground in Afghanistan added a new dimension to the war.
"We are taking an element of risk in putting combat forces on the ground, but it's a measured risk," Stufflebeem said. "It's a risk that is part of a plan."