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Saturday, 29 September, 2001, 00:30 GMT 01:30 UK
The Pentagon's special forces message
US Marines from an Air Control Squadron train in Yuma, Arizona
Many branches of the forces are likely to be called on
Jonathan Marcus

The United States Government confirmed on Friday that American special forces are operating inside Afghanistan.

Given the Pentagon's urgent need to build up as accurate an intelligence picture inside Afghanistan as possible, it would be extraordinary if elements of the US special forces were not already operating there.

US CH-46 Sea Knight helicopter
Intelligence gathered now will make military operations possible
What is more interesting is why this announcement has been made now.

When pressed, the UK Ministry of Defence in London repeated its standard response when questions regarding special forces operations are posed.

It simply refused any comment.

But at least one senior official in Washington is indicating that such intelligence-gathering operations are under way, and the key question is what signal is being sent and to whom?

Double message

The Bush administration has a problem: it wants to take military action, but it has little hard information to go on, and there are few targets in Afghanistan for a classical demonstration of US long-range firepower.


To the Taleban, the message is that the US means business, and the time to hand over Osama Bin Laden is now

So this latest announcement sends a signal, both to the American public and to the Taleban.

To America, it says that military groundwork is in hand to respond to the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington.

To the Taleban, the message is even simpler: the US means business, and the time to hand over Osama Bin Laden is now.

The Pentagon has a variety of special forces units on which it can draw.

Whatever their action-man image, one of their key tasks is exactly what they are doing now - observing, sending back intelligence and preparing the way for swift and highly focused operations by other elite formations.

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's David Shukman
"Special forces are playing a pivotal role"
See also:

28 Sep 01 | Americas
Special forces deploy in Afghanistan
28 Sep 01 | Americas
War rhetoric cools
28 Sep 01 | South Asia
Afghan opposition makes little headway
24 Aug 01 | Middle East
Transcript: Interview with King Abdullah
24 Aug 01 | Middle East
Jordan's pragmatic king looks to future
23 Aug 01 | Middle East
Jordan's king calls for Mid-East talks
28 Sep 01 | Americas
Fighters scrambled in US jet alert
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