Escaped Taliban may fight again

US forces are mopping up Shah-i-Kot valley, site of fierce fighting against the Taliban and Al Qaeda.

For all intents and purposes, the battle of Shah-i-Kot Valley is over. US-led coalition forces are rummaging through hideouts and caves in search of information or ammunition left behind by Al Qaeda and Taliban fighters. While US military officials are declaring "Operation Anaconda" a success, Afghan officials and progovernment forces are providing a somewhat different report card.

If the US forces had acted earlier, says a senior government minister from the area of eastern Afghanistan in which the fighting has concentrated, they could have had more success in catching the big fish – and sustained fewer losses.

"That was a failure of American intelligence," says Amanullah Zadran, the minister for frontiers and tribal affairs. "They were too late and did it at a time that was dangerous to them and gave them more problems than they needed. They didn't know the right people."

But the Pentagon says its timing was impeccable – and that it has the results to show for it. "The commanders developed a plan and moved when they felt it was appropriate, and the commanders on the ground are pleased with the success of the operation to this point," says Maj. Brad Lowell, spokesperson for US Central Command.

From the perspective of one Afghan ally, however, the Pentagon's timing was less than ideal. In an interview in Kabul, Zadran says the attack began months after he and others gave coalition forces information about an Al Qaeda presence in the Shah-i-Kot Valley. He warns that the senior leadership of Al Qaeda and Taliban are continuing to slip away, with the help of local villagers who had been cultivated and paid well over a period of months.

Come spring, they may pose a more formidable threat to US-led forces and the Afghan interim government, bolstered by four Islamic parties that appear to be uniting with them to form a neomujahideen bloc. Already, its mullahs are calling on Muslims in provincial areas to sign up for a new jihad to drive out the latest invading infidels – the US-led coalition and the interim administration they helped install.

"They [Al Qaeda and other anti-Western forces] are waiting for the summer," says Zadran. The climate will change completely, and if the US and the ISAF [International Security Assistance Force] don't strengthen their troops rapidly and take serious measures, there's a real danger of a guerrilla war being launched against them."

But Major Lowell expressed confidence that the US would be able to handIe any Taliban comeback. "If a pocket or regrouping develops we will address it as we did with Operation Anaconda," he says.

Zadran maintains there's work for the US to do right now: He says there are still key Al Qaeda strongholds in the villages of Sarana and Azmani that the US has yet to attack, although he says he is all but begging for them to strike.

In these villages, which are south of Gardez, he says there are between 160 and 180 mostly Chechen and Arab Al Qaeda forces allied with Jalal Uddin Haqqani, a commander who held Zadran's ministry under the Taliban.

"If the Americans want me to, I can show them by helicopter exactly where the base is," says Zadran, removing his swirling gray and black turban. "We don't know why the Americans' information is so weak."

But Maj. Bryan Hilferty, stationed at Bagram airbase, disagrees with criticism of the US operation. "Operation Anaconda has been such a great success. I don't know what we could have done better or done differently. A failure is when your enemy really inflicts damage on you, and on the contrary, we crushed the enemy."

Lt. Col. David Gray, also at Bagram, told reporters that about 500 enemy fighters were killed in the operation, which got its name from a snake that surrounds its prey, then strangles it.

But Zadran says the US and its allies were more like snake charmers who didn't play the right tunes. "They have only killed the small fighters," says Zadran, who argues that there were no more than 800 fighters in the area to begin with, making it highly unlikely that 500 of them were killed. "They haven't killed anyone important. The important thing is to remove the key figures of Al Qaeda," Zadran says.

A good deal of Zadran's information comes from his older brother, Badcha Khan Zadran, a warlord who until a month ago was the governor of Paktia Province. Mr. Khan and his men have played a role in the ground battles that ensued after Al Qaeda was attacked by air. He, too, says the US waited too long to act.

"For two months, I've been telling the Americans that there are hundreds of Al Qaeda in Shah-i-Kot, but they didn't believe me," says Khan, interviewed about a kilometer south of a US base south of Gardez. With a shaved beard and a huge mustache, the charismatic warlord says he is a friend of America – but one who is a little disappointed by his allies.

"I am fighting against Al Qaeda. And I know where Al Qaeda are. There are other Al Qaeda bases in this area, like Sarana and Shamal area, which is a stronghold of Haqqani," he says.

Closer to the front lines, in the snow-covered mountains of eastern Shah-i-Kot, Hamid Khan, Badcha Khan's deputy commander, tells a similar story. He also says his men found evidence of only 42 bodies in the area, most of them young Chechens.

"A majority of them escaped through the southern route of Orgun," that leads down through Paktika and toward the North Waziristan tribal area of Pakistan, says Hamid Khan. Such different views of how the conflict played out could in part be explained by differences in strategy.

US military officials, describing the planning of the operation, say they decided to set up a network of blockades around the area before they struck, in anticipation of the Al Qaeda fighters looking for escape routes. But many of the fighters appear to have found their way out anyway.

• Staff writer Ann Scott Tyson contributed to this report from Washington.

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