[A-List] Afghanistan: the blowback continues
Michael.Keaney at mbs.fi
Tue Mar 19 02:12:02 MST 2002
Pentagon hails Anaconda victory
Matthew Engel in Washington
Tuesday March 19, 2002
The US declared victory yesterday in Operation Anaconda, the fierce series of battles for the mountains around the Shah-i-Kot valley.
Despite the death of at least seven US soldiers, General Tommy Franks, the US commander, said the operation was in its final hours had been "an unqualified success".
He added that the next stage would be more of the same: "We are going to clear al-Qaida out of the country of Afghanistan. That mission has yet to be finished."
Although there has been no fighting in the area for several days, 500 allied troops are still said to be searching the cave system. Intelligence reports are now believed to be identifying further concentrations of Taliban and al-Qaida in the south and east of Afghanistan.
The Pentagon also said that helicopter-borne special forces had killed 16 fighters in an attack on a three-vehicle convoy south-west of Gardez. Officials said they had no evidence that the men were escaping from the battleground, but insisted they were"coming from that general direction".
All 16 were apparently armed with weapons that included rocket-propelled grenades. A fourth vehicle nearby did not return fire and the occupants turned out to include women and children; they were released - a tribute to the troops' professionalism, the Pentagon said.
In a separate raid on a compound near Kandahar, a further 31 people were captured.
Anaconda was the biggest battle of the Afghan war. The Pentagon again refused to speculate on the number of enemy dead, and Gen Franks admitted he had no idea exactly how many might have slipped away.
"Do I believe that al-Qaida are elsewhere on this planet? Absolutely I do. Do I believe that large numbers of terrorists escaped from this operation and into Pakistan? I do not."
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British troops face upbeat Afghan foe
Reinforcements sent to help struggling Americans catch Taliban and al-Qaida fighters who beat the bombing
Richard Norton-Taylor and Rory McCarthy in Mazar-i-Sharif
Tuesday March 19, 2002
America's request for the deployment of 1,700 British troops to Afghanistan shows that despite months of intensive bombing from the air, and weeks of fighting on the ground, the war against Taliban and al-Qaida fighters is far from over.
Geoff Hoon, the defence secretary, admitted as much in the Commons yesterday. The recent US operation, dubbed Operation Anaconda "showed that these people are still in Afghanistan in large numbers and that they are heavily armed", he told MPs.
Senior British defence officials revealed that enemy forces were well-disciplined and committed. They were armed with a variety of small arms, anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons, the officials said.
With the fresh British reinforcements, there will be nearly 7,000 coalition troops engaged in combat operations in southern and eastern Afghanistan. British defence officials admitted they did not know the strength of the enemy.
Senior Afghan military officials believe significant groups of heavily armed al-Qaida and Taliban fighters are still moving freely through the mountains of eastern Afghanistan. Royal Marines to be deployed in Afghanistan in two weeks are likely to focus the hunt for the remaining fighters on a large area in the south and the east, close to the border with Pakistan's lawless tribes.
Although the US military have had to deploy increasingly large numbers of troops to chase down the remaining forces, their operations have not been the overwhelming success that US commanders had initially claimed.
While US officials said hundreds of fighters were killed in the two weeks of bombing in Operation Anaconda, near Gardez, only a handful of bodies have been recovered. Senior Afghan commanders in the heart of the battlefield at Shah-i-kot admitted to the Guardian that hundreds of enemy soldiers simply slipped through their hands.
It seems that an intensive bombing campaign, involving the heaviest bombs in America's non-nuclear arsenal - including the "Blue Two" thermobaric fuel-air bomb designed to penetrate underground caves and bunkers - failed to defeat Taliban and al-Qaida troops well used to the mountainous terrain.
The problems at Shah-i-kot have clearly persuaded US and British military planners to step up the scale of their attacks.
At the same time in Kabul the defence ministry has prepared a new force of 5,000 Afghan soldiers who are to be sent south of the capital to chase down the hundreds of men who have survived months of American bombing and ground operations.
Saranwal Mir Jan, a senior defence ministry official, said "special border units" would patrol the eastern and southern borders with Pakistan. He said much of the Taliban and al-Qaida movement fled unnoticed into Pakistan after the fall of Kabul. "The situation in Afghanistan is very difficult now," he said. "There are small groups in these areas trying to make problems again."
US and British military officials are now likely to work in closer coordination with Afghan troops, many of whom have already been armed, paid and trained by American soldiers. The obstacles they face are formidable.
The loyalty of many commanders who have promised allegiance to Hamid Karzai's interim government is in doubt and it will not always be easy to keep the many rivalries between warlords at bay.
Much of the local Pashtun population in the south is still sympathetic to the Taliban movement and wary of the Kabul government and in these conditions, it will be relatively easy for Taliban and al-Qaida fighters to evade capture.
Commanders in Kabul believe senior leaders are moving freely across the border, particularly around the Pakistani town of Miram Shah. Although Pakistani troops have been deployed in the tribal areas for the first time they face a near impossible task in sealing the frontier. Perhaps the greatest defence that the al-Qaida and Taliban fighters now have is the terrain in which they operate.
In the war of the 1980s against the Soviet occupation, mojahedin fighters, funded by the CIA, built a network of cave defences across the area many of which are now being used by the Taliban. Both Tora Bora, near Jalalabad, and Shah-i-kot, the centre of the fighting in the past fortnight, were such bases. Trails from both areas lead east across Paktia province and around the town of Khost to yet more virtually impenetrable hideouts.
As the spring sunshine melts the thick snow it will become even easier for Taliban and al-Qaida fighters to move around the mountains they know so well.
The fighters here are not mere rank and file troops. Senior figures are known to be hiding in the area.
Royal Marines 45 Commando
· Specialists in mountain warfare, based in Arbroath
· The commando regiment is about 700 strong
· First unit to specialise in mountain and cold weather warfare in the 1970s. Its role in event of hostilities would have been to defend Norway and Nato's northern flank
· Trained and equipped for other harsh environments, from deserts to rain forests
· Equipped with assault rifles, machine guns and sniper rifles and supported by light artillery
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michael.keaney at mbs.fi
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