[A-List] Afghanistan: the blowback continues
Michael.Keaney at mbs.fi
Fri Mar 15 06:06:10 MST 2002
Al-Qaida fighters evaded US siege, Afghans claim
Rory McCarthy in Shah-i-Kot
Friday March 15, 2002
Afghan commanders yesterday cast doubt on the success of the US military operation in the mountains at Shah-i-Kot when they admitted that hundreds of al-Qaida and Taliban fighters had escaped during the 12-day assault.
US military officials have repeatedly said that they killed at least 500 fighters in their bombing campaign and ground operations, but yesterday at the village of Shah-i-Kot, the heart of the battle, there was little evidence to match their claims.
Three badly disfigured bodies lay by deep craters at the side of the village. One man, wearing camouflage trousers and boots, lay twisted on his side, a thin, silver ring still on his finger. The two other bodies were burned beyond recognition.
Further on, surrounded by minefields, the handful of mud-hut compounds which made up the village had been torn to rubble by days of heavy pounding from B-52 and B-1 bombers. But nearly all the Taliban and al-Qaida fighters appeared to have fled the area.
Most of the caves in the mountains seem to have been small bunkers, built years before the Taliban emerged, and now obliterated.
General Zia Lodin, the Afghan commander who ran the operation with US troops, said his men had found just 10 bodies on the steep mountain slopes. US officials said they took about 20 prisoners.
"Some of the bodies may be in the caves. It is difficult to tell because they are completely covered over," Gen Zia added.
Although the commanders insisted from the start of the campaign that the slopes were surrounded, Gen Zia admitted that there had been at least one escape route.
"One way was open and maybe some of them escaped that way. Some of them escaped, some of them were killed, and maybe now they are losing their morale," he said.
One known escape route from Shah-i-Kot runs through deep valleys into the district of Orgun, close to the border with Pakistan's tribal areas.
US special forces, their beards thick and ragged with weeks of growth, patrolled through the village yesterday searching for stragglers. "Right now this is still a battlefield," said one soldier, who wore a pair of ski goggles in the brilliant sunshine. Clear-up operations are expected to last for several days.
US troops spent weeks planning the attack on Shah-i-Kot, training and arming Afghan soldiers to prevent a repeat of the battle at Tora Bora, where hundreds of Taliban and al-Qaida fighters fled despite intense bombing.
Yet Mohammed Ismail, the commander in charge of operations at the nearby town of Gardez, said that hundreds of Taliban and al-Qaida fighters had managed to slip out. "It is a large area and we were not able to surround them. It is too big an area," he said. "There is no one left in the area now - they have fled. About 200 have escaped."
He claimed that Saifur Rehman Mansour, a cleric and Taliban commander who led the fighters in Shah-i-Kot, was killed in the bombing.
Many commanders expect that the remains of the Taliban and al-Qaida force will regroup in other mountain hideouts near the Pakistan border.
Cdr Ismail said that many villagers around Gardez were still sympathetic to the Taliban. "We cannot trust these people. They are completely with al-Qaida," he said.
Most US troops withdrew yesterday. Several convoys of humvee military vehicles and pickup trucks, with identifying orange sheets taped on their roofs to warn off bomber pilots, drove back towards Kabul laden with special forces. Hundreds of Afghan troops and a dozen tanks also returned to Kabul.
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