Uphill pursuit for Afghan warlord

Facing rugged terrain and propaganda, US troops hunt for a guerrilla group with ties to Al Qaeda and Taliban.

For three days, US soldiers trekked along goat trails, forded waist-deep rivers, and scrambled up steep, rocky ridges of the Hindu Kush to reach a suspected mountain hideout of the group led by renegade Afghan warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar.

There, near the remote hamlet of Tazagul Kala in Nuristan Province, they came upon devastation left by multiple precision-guided bombs - at least two cottages in rubble and another partially destroyed by a US air strike targeting Mr. Hekmatyar and his radical Hizb-i Islami, or Party of Islam.

The shepherds' dwellings perched on high terraces had been stocked for the winter with bags of corn and wheat, as well as machine-gun ammunition, bombmaking components, and antigovernment propaganda, say 10th Mountain Division soldiers who searched the site Nov. 9.

But who, if anyone, died in the late October strike remains a matter of controversy - with some local Afghans charging that six civilians lost their lives and US officers saying that anyone killed was probably an enemy. What is clear, however, is that Hekmatyar and his close associates evaded the attack.

Derided as a "warlord without a portfolio" by some Bush administration officials, Hekmatyar has emerged as a primary target since he declared a "holy war" against US-led forces in Afghanistan and denounced President Hamid Karzai as a puppet. The State Department this year labeled Hekmatyar a terrorist with ties to Al Qaeda and the Taliban, and he is believed to be responsible for deadly attacks on both foreigners and Afghans.

Kabul and its coalition allies are seeking to win over commanders linked to Hekmatyar. "Of course we are willing to talk with them [former Hekmatyar commanders]," says Arzo Mansury, spokeswoman for the Afghan Embassy in Washington. She ruled out talks with commanders actively fighting.

Intelligence reports indicate Hekmatyar, a former anti-Soviet mujahideen leader, is working to regroup and regain a stronghold in the northeastern border provinces of Konar and Nuristan. A distinctive land of animists forcibly converted to Islam in 1895, Nuristan saw some of the heaviest guerrilla fighting during Soviet occupation in the 1980s.

But Hekmatyar's war-honed survival skills and tiny circle of trusted associates make him hard to track, US officials say, adding that he travels with a small entourage of 20 to 30 bodyguards and communicators.

In the October strike on Nuristan, the unusual number of aircraft in the vicinity probably tipped off those targeted, Western military sources say. In a videotape circulated among the media, Hekmatyar brags of skirting US forces four times in the past two years, asserting, "American forces cannot catch you."

Still, US military commanders say they succeeded in flushing out Hekmatyar fighters in a sweep by ground troops through Nuristan and Konar soon after the bombing strike. "We drove them out," says Col. Burke Garrett, commander of the 10th Mountain Division's 1st Brigade and task force warrior. "Mid- to low-level [Hekmatyar] operatives and some of their sympathizers fled."

The month-long Operation Mountain Resolve began Nov. 6 with a series of air and ground assaults involving several hundred troops who combed through villages dotting a rugged, 12-mile stretch of the Waygal Valley, 100 miles northeast of Kabul. Cells of up to 10 men of Hekmatyar's group were hiding and planning operations in the valley, the military says.

Capt. Toby Moore led Bravo Company of the 10th Mountain's 2-22 Infantry Battalion on a 22-mile trek north from Nangalam village through what he calls the valley's "unforgiving" terrain. Along the way, the soldiers found recent "night letters" posted on mosques and schools warning villagers not to cooperate with US forces - a sign anticoalition groups knew Americans were coming.

Other propaganda included leaflets bearing photographs of US forces with a twisted message, US officers say. One leaflet shows a US female soldier frisking a robed woman, but implies the soldier is male and accuses US troops of violating Afghans' dignity. "Why do the chests of these barbaric, beast-like American invaders lack the wounds of the Afghan sword?" one asks.

Captain Moore's company reached the bombed hamlet near Tazagul Kala after a grueling, 1,400-foot ascent. Villagers told soldiers that outside fighters had moved into the dwellings and taken their food. They said six to eight people were killed in the strike, but the bodies had been removed at night and the fighters had left, military officials say.

"The locals stated that HIG [Hizb-i Islami] and Al Qaeda forces had departed the area days before we arrived," says Lt. Col. Joe Dichairo, commander of the 2-22 Infantry Battalion. "They won't be sitting snug for the winter," adds Bravo Company 1st Sgt. Carl Ashmead.

According to press reports, however, a local Afghan religious leader allied with the government, Maulavi Ghulam Rabbani, said the October air strike killed six civilians including two of his children and other relatives.

US officials dispute this charge, but say that because they found no bodies they were unable to confirm any casualties. "We found no evidence [of the deaths]," says Maj. Jim Bradford, operations officer of 2-22. "So this allows bad guys in the area to claim we killed women and children, and it allows them to keep us guessing who they are."

Foot trails and reports of fighters fleeing from Tazagul Kala to the town of Aranus three miles northeast, led US forces to stage a second air assault later in the month. The mission hit a snag, however, when Chinook helicopters dropped troops onto a snow-covered slope at an altitude of about 10,000 feet.

"Our biggest enemy is the terrain," says Alpha Company commander Capt. George Cordeiro. His forces slogged and slid through the thigh-deep snow, huddling for warmth as zero-degree weather froze the water in their canteens.

Repositioned closer to the town, the troops searched Aranus and found what they were looking for: the home of a mid-level Hizb-i Islami operative that held documents, military equipment, flares, and ammunition.

"Aranus is located in some of the roughest terrain I've ever seen an offensive operation conducted in," says Colonel Dichairo. "This has to send a very convincing message to HIG and others: We will relentlessly pursue you."

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