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Sources: Reconnaissance ops underway in Afghanistan

Special operations forces are trained in a variety of combat specialties.  

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- U.S. and British special forces have conducted reconnaissance operations inside Afghanistan to pave the way for future action aimed at suspected terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden and his top lieutenants, officials told CNN Friday.

Sources also said the Pentagon is drawing up plans for a possible humanitarian airdrop of food and medical supplies in Afghanistan in an effort to win the "hearts and minds" of the Afghan people.

"U.S. and British special forces have participated in operations in the region and, yes, in-country," one senior U.S. official told CNN's John King. In addition, a senior member of Congress, who has been briefed on the operations, confirmed to CNN that special forces have been sent "in and out" of Afghanistan for the purpose of reconnaissance.

Neither the Pentagon nor White House would confirm the report.

Sources said U.S. and British commandos, elite fighters, are not yet hunting bin Laden, whom the United States believes is still in Afghanistan -- perhaps near the Kandahar headquarters of the Taliban.

CNN's Brian Nelson says the United States has about 47,000 special operations forces. (September 19)

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Instead, sources indicate the special operations forces have been scouting the terrain, spotting landing zones and filling in intelligence gaps.

Pentagon sources said clear skies over Afghanistan have provided excellent conditions for spy planes and satellites in preparation for commando raids. Sources also said the Pentagon has identified "high value" targets that could be hit from the air.

"We know what their centers of gravity are," said Gen. Hugh Shelton, the Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman. "Some of those can be attacked by the other elements of our government. Some could be attacked by us."

In the immediate aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, Pentagon planners drew up a "quick strike option" that would have sent cruise missiles into Afghanistan, but sources said it was quickly rejected as "shooting from the hip," CNN has learned.

"We're not leaping into this, we're moving into it in a measured way," Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said.

Conventional forces' role unclear

President Bush told reporters Friday at the White House that conventional military force "may or may not" participate in the campaign against Afghanistan if the Taliban refuse to hand over bin Laden.

"It is very hard to fight a guerrilla war with conventional forces, and we understand that," Bush said. "That is why we have explained to the American people that the new war on terrorism is going to be a different war."

Bush repeated that U.S. officials would rely more on financial and intelligence efforts to track suspected terrorists and cut off their resources.

'Standard military stuff'

Military experts told CNN they would be surprised if such operations were not happening.

"They're doing exactly what special forces always do," said retired U.S. Air Force Maj. Gen. Donald Shepperd, a CNN military analyst. "They're there behind the scenes establishing the locations of people and things that will be used later. ... This is standard military stuff."

British special operations forces include the Special Air Service. Shepperd said the British have more experience at special operations, but the U.S. military has been bolstering its forces.

"In the last 10 years, they have really been hard at work getting ready for this type of thing," Shepperd said.

U.S. special operations units include Navy SEALs, Army Rangers, Army Special Forces known as Green Berets, Air Force Special Operations and the Delta Force, so secret the Pentagon does not even acknowledge its existence.

"They're there quietly, unseen, behind the scenes, establishing locations of people and things that will be used in military campaigns later," Shepperd said. "They don't get a lot of credit for this. We don't talk a lot about it, but they're always part of any military operation."

Specialized units

Special operations forces share many of the same combat skills; each unit also maintains its own specialty, which may be useful in this new war on terrorism.

For example, if the United States works with opposition groups such as the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance, the Green Berets could play a role.

Green Berets are required to have the ability to speak and read at least one foreign language. They are trained in a variety of specialties, including foreign internal defense, unconventional warfare, security assistance, peacekeeping and humanitarian assistance.

The Army Rangers work in larger groups, pack more firepower and are considered experts in seizing airfields. They are trained in infiltrating and exiting by land, sea and air; conducting raids; and recovering personnel and special equipment.

Air Force Special Operations specialize in inserting, resupplying and retrieving soldiers inside enemy territory, using standard military aircraft modified to fly longer, lower and quieter.

"In a special operations mission, a routine mission, if you're detected on the way to the target, you may as well turn around and go home," said retired Gen. William Patterson, a former commander of Air Force Special Operations. "You failed."

Navy SEALs -- an acronym for Sea, Air and Land -- are trained in special reconnaissance, combat search and rescue and unconventional warfare.

As tensions rise in this unconventional war, U.S. officials are likely to monitor the status of eight Western humanitarian workers -- including two U.S. citizens -- arrested by the Taliban last month and charged with trying to convert Muslims to Christianity.

The ultra-secret Delta Force could be employed to help, as its specialty is hostage rescue.

"Units like Delta Force are pretty much focused on hostage rescue," said retired Army Gen. David Grange, a former Ranger commander.


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