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Anaconda ends; battle winds on

As the US declares Operation Anaconda a success, Afghans predict a new fight in Khost province.

By Ilene R. PrusherStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / March 19, 2002


All night long, shots and artillery fire ring out over this lawless province that Afghan forces say Al Qaeda and Taliban fighters have chosen as their next nest.

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Then, all day long, Afghan forces try to figure out where and when they will begin their next campaign against the Al Qaeda fighters whom they fear will grow in numbers – luring local villagers to their ranks – if they are not stopped soon.

With that in mind, Wazir Khan, the youngest brother of this area's most powerful warlord and a key liaison with US special forces, says Afghan troops are preparing to attack another Al Qaeda hideout soon.

Their redoubt is known here as "Mister Bill Ghar" – ghar meaning mountain in Pashtu. It is named for a British Army officer who did battle with Afghans here almost a century ago. The caves in the inaccessible mountain, which lies southwest of Khost, the provincial capital, and southeast of Shah-i-Kot, was used by the mujahideen to fight Soviet soldiers in the 1970s.

"There are about 600 or more Al Qaeda up there. All together, there are another 3,000 or 4,000 of them around. A lot of them have already moved out of Shah-i-Kot and have moved east, to around here," says the young Mr. Khan.

US military leaders say that as of last night, Operation Anaconda's mission was complete.

But Afghan forces, who are following the trail of Al Qaeda somewhat more intimately – and yesterday could still be heard exchanging fire with some holed-up fighters in the Shah-i-Kot mountains – say that the target of Operation Anaconda has not been destroyed. It has just changed addresses.

Speaking to some 300 troops at Bagram airbase yesterday, US Gen. Tommy Franks said that Operation Anaconda would be over in about 12 hours.

"This is about you, is about Operation Anaconda, which within 12 hours will be completed because you did it, you did it on time, you did it with a good plan, you did it with violent execution," General Franks told the troops, four of whom were awarded Bronze Medals for valor. "You did it taking care of one another."

But Afghan commanders here say there is far more to take care of in their backyard. Here in Khost, two different divisions of progovernment, anti-Al Qaeda forces have been firing on each other over the past two days. Though both forces oppose the Taliban and Al Qaeda, the forces of Cmdr. Badsha Khan deeply distrust those of the local security chief, Mustafa, who is backed by the Northern Alliance.

There are also deep concerns that Al Qaeda is already making inroads with a local population who may be easily swept in by their rhetoric.

"They are going around and telling the local people, 'We will start the jihad soon.' So the local people are supporting them and helping the foreign Al Qaeda," says Wazir Khan.

He says that the next place to target will be the oddly named Mister Bill Ghar, which is famously inaccessible.

"You cannot drive up the mountain," he says. "No one can go up to that place. They're living in caves, old ones that were used when they fought the Soviet invasion."

The Al Qaeda fugitives traveled up the mountain on donkeys and camels, he says, because there are no roads.