Powell Calms India; Special Forces Ready

Secretary of State Colin Powell reassured Indian leaders that America's closer ties with Pakistan don't mean Washington is turning its back on New Delhi, as signs emerged after 11 days of bombing that the United States is ready to step up the campaign against the Taliban.

With U.S. warplanes prowling the skies over Afghanistan looking for targets, two Pentagon officials have said American special forces troops and helicopters are in place on the aircraft carrier USS Kitty Hawk in the Indian Ocean, ready to be sent in to Afghanistan.

But ABCNEWS has learned there is a heated debate within the Pentagon about how quickly to use helicopter firepower.

Many high-level Army generals think it should be used immediately. Some, though, are concerned that low-flying helicopters could be shot down — just as they were in Somalia seven years ago, when the resulting public-relations mess caused the withdrawal of American troops.

The United States has switched tactics from the early days of the campaign, when targets were determined before planes even reached Afghan airspace. Because so much of the Taliban air defenses have been either put out of commission or sent into hiding, pilots are now able to cruise the skies in zones looking for targets of opportunity.

A thick cloud of smoke hung over the Afghan capital of Kabul all day today, after U.S. warplanes hit a Taliban oil depot just north of the city center. The U.S. forces made eight daylight bombing runs over Kabul today.

In one neighborhood, the explosions blew out shop windows. In another, an unexploded bomb lay as an obstacle on the ground.

In the north of Afghanistan, the fighting continued in Mazar-e-Sharif, the biggest city in the region. Today the rebel Northern Alliance lost ground it had gained on Tuesday, then won it back by the end of the day despite a fierce counter-attack from the Taliban.

Aiming for the Airwaves

The attacks were launched in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the United States that left thousands dead or missing. The Bush administration says Osama bin Laden and his al Qaeda network, who have been sheltered by the Taliban, were behind the attacks.

Washington stepped up its worldwide public relations campaign as well, with Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld telling the Qatar-based al Jazeera television network that the United States is only trying to defend itself from terrorism.

"I think it's important for people in the region as well as throughout the world to understand that the United States is dealing only with the problem of terrorism," Rumsfeld told the broadcaster. "And this effort on our part is a matter of self-defense. It is not against any religion. It's not against any race. It's not against any country."

That public relations effort suffered a blow, though, with new reports of civilians being hit, a day after the Pentagon admitted that U.S. bombs hit a Red Cross warehouse in Kabul that was used to store food and medical supplies. A Taliban official said that a truck carrying refugees fleeing the bombing was hit in the raids today, with as many as 20 casualties.

And international aid workers called on the United States to stop its bombing campaign, saying drivers of relief trucks were too scared to enter the targeted cities. The World Food Programme also says the Taliban has seized two of its warehouses.

"We call on all the parties to pause all military action to allow food to be delivered in safety and in sufficient quantities to keep people alive through the winter," said aid worker Nick Rosevear.

‘Jihad Against the Infidel’

Reports indicate there are breaks within the Taliban, but the Taliban regime's leader has reportedly exhorted his soldiers to fight to the death.

"It is jihad against the infidel like the one we waged against the Soviets," Mullah Mohammad Omar said in a radio broadcast, according to the Afghan Islamic Press.

As Powell worked to reaffirm ties between New Delhi and Washington, the United States' anti-terror coalition got a boost from Australia.

Australian Prime Minister John Howard said that in response to a telephone request from President Bush, the country would begin deploying 1,550 troops and assorted military hardware to the Persian Gulf region to join U.S. and British forces already in the area. Among the Australian troops will be elite Special Air Service forces.

Friendship Reaffirmed

Powell met with Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee today in an attempt to calm tensions that may have developed due to the closer military, intelligence and economic ties between the U.S. and Pakistan that have emerged during the U.S.-led anti-terrorism campaign.

The simmering dispute between India and Pakistan over control of the Kashmir region has been boiling over again this week, with troops exchanging fire near the contested mountain border. India says that terrorists based in Pakistan were behind the suicide bombing that killed 38 people at a state assembly building in Srinagar on Oct. 1.

"The issue of Kashmir is one that has to be resolved between India and Pakistan," Powell said. "The United States is a friend of both of those nations. And to the extent that both nations can find our efforts to be helpful in some way or other we would like to be useful."

Hours after Powell and Vajpayee appeared together to say that their two countries remain committed to friendship, in Islamabad earlier this week, Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf announced that his troops were being put on high alert because Indian military movements had been detected along the front line in Kashmir.

Powell also announced that President Bush had invited Vajpayee to Washington for talks on Nov. 9.

Bush Hitting the Road, Too

The final stop on Powell's trip through Asia will be Shanghai, China, where he will meet Bush and the two will attend the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit.

Bush left Washington today, and was due to make a stop on the West Coast before crossing the Pacific.

APEC has aleady reached a consensus on a statement condemning terrorism, but the president's presence at the summit is considered important to ensure that support for the U.S.-led military action does not weaken. Two moderate Islamic nations, Malaysia and Indonesia have both been critical of the U.S. campaign in Afghanistan.

The White House dismissed fears that Bush could be in danger on the trip, and said that there would be no problem for him to remain in touch with his administration and direct the ongoing campaign against the Taliban.

"The president has absolute faith in the Secret Service to secure his safety," presidential spokesman Ari Fleischer said. "Presidents before have traveled to places that were dangerous, and Shanghai certainly does not fit that description."

As for staying in touch, Fleischer pointed out: "Telephones work."

Iran Willing to Rescue U.S. Soldiers

In other developments:

Six Canadian Navy ships, carrying 2,000 personnel, including commandos, and aircraft, sailed out of Halifax harbor today, heading for the Indian Ocean to join U.S. and British ships already in the region. The Canadian contingent will support the U.S.-led forces in the Arabian Sea and the Persian Gulf.

Northern Alliance troops reported gains in their fight to capture the key strategic city Mazar-e-Sharif, moving to within three miles of the city after having been pushed back by Taliban forces over the last two days. The area around the city has been the site of some of the fiercest fighting between the two sides.

A U.S. government official says Iran has indicated to the United States it would be willing to assist American military personnel in need of rescue in its territory. Tehran has been critical of the U.S. bombing raids, but said that it supports an international effort to eliminate terrorism.

New York City officials estimate the number of missing and presumed dead at the World Trade Center is 4,613. The number of confirmed dead is 456, and 404 remains have been identified. At the Pentagon, 189 were believed killed and another 44 were killed when the fourth hijacked jet, United Airlines Flight 93, crashed in Pennsylvania.