WASHINGTON (AP) – Forty U.S. and British warplanes and an armada of warships and submarines pummeled strongholds of the al-Qaeda network and the Taliban regime in Afghanistan on Sunday with Tomahawk cruise missiles, 500-pound gravity bombs and computer-guided bombs.
The targets included five Afghan cities, which housed early warning radars, surface-to-air missiles, airfields, aircraft, military command and control installations, and terrorist camps.
Mazar-e-Sharif and Konduz, both Taliban strongholds with concentrations of military equipment including tanks, were among the cities hit. Also targeted in the attacks were airports in Herat, Kandahar and Jalalabad.
The demonstration of Western firepower was the first wave of an anti-terrorism campaign promised after the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States. One senior administration official said the military strikes would be sustained and would last at least a few days.
“Our objective is to defeat those who use terrorism and those who house or support them,” Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld told a Pentagon news conference.
Defense officials said one goal of the initial strike was to weaken the Taliban’s military defenses so that rebel Afghans could advance in their effort to overthrow the regime that has harbored Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaida network.
“Our interest is to strengthen those forces that are opposed to al-Qaida and opposed to the Taliban leadership … so that they will have better opportunities to prevail,” Rumsfeld said.
Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said that early indications were positive.
“It looks to be at this early juncture successful,” Shelby said Sunday night. “This is only the beginning, and it looks to me to be a strong beginning.”
Along with the strikes against air defenses of the Taliban and their small fleet of warplanes, U.S. Air Force C-17 cargo planes flying from Ramstein Air Base, Germany, were dropping food and medical supplies inside Afghanistan as part of President Bush’s effort to aid displaced civilians.
Rumsfeld said 37,500 sets of rations were to be dropped in an initial wave Sunday , the beginning stage of a humanitarian operation that might eventually include moving relief supplies by ground. Another official said the air drops would probably continue for several days.
At the same time, Air Force EC-130E Commando Solo aircraft equipped with sophisticated radio equipment flew over the area and broadcast messages aimed at both the Taliban and Afghans opposing the ruling regime, U.S. officials said. Among the messages were assurances that the U.S.-led attacks were aimed at terrorists and not the Afghan people, said one official familiar with the operation.
The Taliban’s ambassador to Pakistan described the first attack as huge and said there were civilian casualties. But Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col George Rhynedance said late Sunday, “We’re assessing the success of our missions right now. It’s too early to tell.”
A Pentagon official said the United States also will conduct operations inside Afghanistan that will not be seen publicly – an apparent reference to the use of Army special operations ground forces.
Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said 15 land-based bombers – including B-2 Stealth bombers flying from Whiteman Air Force Base, Mo. – and 25 other strike aircraft flying from U.S. aircraft carriers began the attack at 12:30 p.m. EDT – after darkness fell in Afghanistan. He termed the strike “the early stages of ongoing combat operations” against the Taliban and the al-Qaida network.
A senior defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said later that Navy F/A-18 and F-14 fighters flew missions off two U.S. carriers – the USS Carl Vinson and the USS Enterprise – in the Arabian Sea, and that no land-based Air Force strike planes other than bombers were used in the first round of attacks. The support planes used in the raids included Navy EA-6B electronic warfare aircraft and E2-C Hawkeye early warning radar planes as well as American and British tankers that refueled the bombers on their long-range strikes.
Myers, sworn into office less than a week ago, said the U.S. aircraft in the initial wave included Air Force B-1 Lancers, B-2s and B-52 long-range bombers as well as carrier-based strike aircraft. The B-2s flew from Whiteman, but after dropping their satellite-guided bombs, known as Joint Direct Attack Munitions, continued on to Diego Garcia, a British island in the Indian Ocean. The crews were to rest there and then fly their planes back to Missouri, officials said.
The B-52s dropped at least dozens of 500-pound gravity bombs on al-Qaida terrorist training camps in eastern Afghanistan, one official said.
Also participating in the initial attacks were American and British ships and submarines that launched a total of 50 Tomahawk cruise missiles from positions in the Arabian Sea, officials said.
The U.S. ships were the guided missile cruiser USS Philippine Sea, whose homeport is Mayport, Fla., and three destroyers, the USS O’Brien based in Yokosuka, Japan, the USS McFaul based in Norfolk, Va., and the USS John Paul Jones based in San Diego.
Two submarines – one American and one British – also fired cruise missiles. Officials would not identify them by name.
Rumsfeld said it was too early to judge the success of the mission. He said there was no indication that any American plane had been damaged.
Afghan sources, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the targets included Taliban headquarters in Kandahar, the city’s airport facilities, housing for followers of Osama bin Laden and the home of a Taliban leader.
-Information provided by CNN was also used in this story.