WASHINGTON (AP) -- U.S. Marines are in Afghanistan to choke off escape routes for Taliban and al-Qaida leaders who will "dig in and fight, perhaps to the end," Pentagon officials said.
The Marines also will make quick strikes when they can and help identify targets for U.S. bombing. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said "hundreds, not thousands," of Marines are being sent to Afghanistan in an airlift expected to last through Tuesday.
Rumsfeld told a Pentagon news conference Monday the soldiers are using an airstrip in a remote area of southern Afghanistan as a "forward operating base" for the fight that began Oct. 7 in retaliation for the Sept. 11 terror attacks. Other military officials said about 1,000 Marines would be involved, the largest number on the ground in a war zone since the 1991 Gulf War.
Rumsfeld said Gen. Tommy Franks, commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, wanted the Marines in southern Afghanistan as part of a broader strategy of blocking roadways.
Rumsfeld, who was meeting with Franks on Tuesday at the U.S. Central Command headquarters near Tampa, Fla., was reluctant to discuss the Marines' Afghanistan role in detail. They may not be a traditional ground force that directly attacks enemy troops, as the Marines did in the Persian Gulf War push into Kuwait to expel an occupying Iraqi army.
This force may instead focus on blocking roads out of the Taliban militia's final stronghold of Kandahar, rather than attacking the city directly. That would make it harder for forces of the Taliban and al-Qaida, the international terror network, to resupply, regroup or escape across the Pakistan border.
Taliban officials say the militia's leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar, is in Kandahar and plans to fight to the death.
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