US enters mopping-up phase
Yesterday, mainly Afghan troops began searching caves in the Shah-i-kot mountains of Afghanistan.
BAGRAM AIR BASE, AFGHANISTAN — US-led allied forces are claiming victory in the Shah-i-kot area of eastern Afghanistan and declaring Operation Anaconda an "incredible success."
But they also warn that the war is far from over. They are just beginning a mopping up and assessment of the damage done in the fortified mountain redoubts from where the Al Qaeda and Taliban fighters waged the fiercest battle to date against US forces.
"The progress has been great. Operation Anaconda has been nothing but a success," Maj. Bryan Hilferty told reporters here. "We have killed hundreds of the Al Qaeda. We now control the majority of the valley."
Major Hilferty said the battle had inflicted heavy casualties on a "hardcore" of Al Qaeda and Taliban terrorists, while the allied forces sustained comparatively few casualties. Eight US soldiers and three Afghans were killed, while about 80 Americans were wounded, mostly with light injuries.
But military officials say they cannot be sure that their supremacy over the area is complete. For that reason, some 1,500 troops are still in the area now, more than 1,000 of whom are Afghan.
Yesterday, they were just beginning to enter the cave hideouts, some of which may still be mined and booby-trapped. They are searching for documents, weapons, or other information that might help the US figure out the million-dollar question: where next?
About 20 detainees were captured by the US in the latest fighting. US military officials said that they were not Afghans, but they could not confirm the nationality of those they killed, who are reported to number about 700.
But, from their experience in Tora Bora in December, US military officials say they are concerned that many of the best fighters could have escaped into caves where they can lie low and later regroup. The Afghan ground forces still in the area are in the process of reestablishing their positions "to prevent a lot of enemy forces from moving to the east," says Lt. Col. Jim Marye, a battalion commander.
Other reports from the region indicate that many of the Al Qaeda and Taliban fighters may have already escaped. Afghan soldiers reported finding only one body in each of the first three caves they entered. And villagers are reporting they have received few bodies for burial.
Meanwhile, soldiers who had been on the mission in Shah-i-kot relaxed in their tents yesterday, talking about near misses and filling out forms to nominate their leaders for medals.
Some of the soldiers interviewed at the US military base here, where they basked in the bright sun, say they saw some of the fighters run when they saw how overpowered they were.
"I think we surprised them. I don't think they realized how many people we had out there," says Staff Sgt. James Harris, a mortar platoon commander. "The hills kind of came alive on them."
Sergeant Harris and his comrades in the 60 mm mortar platoon nicknamed one fighter whose hideout they hit "The Waver," because he miraculously stumbled out of a house slammed by a 500-pound bomb, waved, as if in a gesture of resignation, and slipped down the other side of the hill, out of sight.
US forces were - quite happily - not impressed with their enemies' military tactics, or even their ability to shoot on target.
They say the Al Qaeda and Taliban forces appear to have relied on antiquated military tactics that might be described as sundial warfare: waiting until just before the sun went down - when it would blind the Allied troops' eyesight - to make their attacks. Such tactics, however, were no match for the Allied military superiority and sheer number.
"Our mission is to kill or capture Al Qaeda, they are welcome to surrender, but so far they have decided to die," Hilferty said. "We killed hundreds of terrorists. It only took 20 terrorists to kill 3,000 of the world's citizens in the World Trade towers. Twenty. We killed hundreds. That means we've saved hundreds of thousands of lives."
Lt. Col. David Gray, chief of operations for 10th Mountain Division, said the planning for Operation Anaconda began the second week of February after intelligence information indicated that there was a strong concentration of Al Qaeda in Shah-i-kot Valley. He says the mission of Operation Anaconda was to form a "concentric circle around the objective area and then squeeze it, just like the anaconda snake does."
In what is being called D-Day here, or March 2, the operation began with pre-assault fires about 20 minutes before air operations to achieve "tactical surprise."
With some exceptions, this has largely been an operation in which US soldiers were far from their targets, never able to get close enough to see their faces. But it was, nonetheless, not necessarily a remote mission.
Outside one tent here hangs a flag marked FDNY, the Fire Department of New York, which lost hundreds of firefighters on Sept. 11.
And Sgt. Brian McGough, a forward observer who just returned from the fighting, says that he lost two cousins in the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center.
"It's kind of a personal matter. There are a lot of guys here from New York," he says. "My family is very proud of me."
In the tent next door, young soldiers in an antitank platoon retold stories of the near misses that they had, of shrapnel and bullets and shells that could have killed many of them. Leaning on an empty detergent box, Staff Sgt. Justin Mallery filled out an application for his platoon commander to receive a Bronze Medal for Military Valor. "His actions on the objective saved an unknown number of American lives, while placing his own in danger," Mallery wrote of 1st Lt. Christopher Beal.