U.S. deploys artillery to Afghanistan for first time

Tuesday, September 10, 2002

The U.S. military has deployed artillery to Afghanistan for the first time, giving ground forces the ability to counter mortar and rocket attacks by al-Qaida and Taliban fighters. A senior military official said the Army has deployed six 105mm howitzers at the main U.S. base in the southern city of Kandahar as part of an effort to bolster protection of the 8,000 American troops in the country.

The howitzers, equipped with counter-fire radar, enable U.S. forces to pinpoint the location of enemy mortar and rocket fire and respond with artillery shells. A spokesman for Central Command, which is overseeing the war, declined to comment on the reason for the deployment Monday. It involves elements of the 82nd Airborne's 319th Field Artillery Regiment.

From the outset, the military has taken note of the Soviet military defeat in Afghanistan in the 1980s, when large numbers of Soviet forces were confined to garrison and harassed and attacked by Afghan mortar and rocket fire. In response, the Pentagon opted to keep the U.S. military presence in the country relatively small, one reason ground commanders did not bring artillery -- the heaviest component of any Army division -- into Afghanistan before now.

But faced with a volatile security situation -- a gunman tried to assassinate Afghan President Hamid Karzai last week on the same day a bomb killed 23 people in Kabul -- commanders realize that U.S. forces are going to be in Afghanistan for the foreseeable future at vulnerable bases.

Hundreds of U.S. troops launched a sweep Monday through the mountains in eastern Afghanistan's Paktia province on the Pakistani border, searching for members of the al-Qaida network and Afghanistan's ousted Taliban militia.

Anthony Cordesman, a former Pentagon official who is a military and diplomatic analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said a debate is developing within the U.S. military between those who believe in continuing a hunt for al-Qaida and Taliban remnants, and those who believe the United States has reached a point of diminishing returns and should turn over security to Afghanistan's central government, regional leaders and an international peacekeeping force in Kabul.

But as long as the U.S. military has 8,000 troops in Afghanistan, Cordesman said, adding artillery to bolster force protection makes good sense. "This to me is a pragmatic gesture -- and it certainly does reflect the fact that things aren't perfectly secure," he said.

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