Operation Anaconda is revealing the troubling tenacity and cohesion of a die-hard enemy.
For all America's success early in the Afghan campaign - and its continued confidence that it will vanquish foes surrounded in the mountains of Eastern Afghanistan - Al Qaeda and Taliban holdouts are nevertheless displaying the traits that make this global terrorist network more daunting than others: a relatively sophisticated, well-trained and financed organization that draws on ongoing grass-roots support and a fanatical willingness to fight to the death.
Although disrupted, Al Qaeda elements are attempting to regroup and establish new strongholds - both inside and outside Afghanistan - from which to plot terrorist attacks against Americans, Pentagon officials say. Communicating by satellite phone, runners, and the Internet, they remain a potent threat. "We won't know until we discover the next group what size they will be," says Central Command spokesman Lt. Col. Martin Compton.
The current US-led mission, reportedly planned to last 72 hours, has dragged out more than four days as a result of fierce resistance by an enemy force of up to 700 fighters - far larger than the 400 initially estimated by US commanders.
"The local fundamentalists had called a jihad against Americans," said Maj. Gen. Frank Hagenbeck, the US commander of the operation, briefing reporters Wednesday in the rugged Shahi Khot region south of Gardez. So far, coalition ground and air forces have killed at least half of the Al Qaeda and Taliban force in a "hammer and anvil operation," he said. "We truly have the momentum.... At this point we control the dominant terrain."
This battle, while perhaps the biggest, will not be the last against core Al Qaeda holdouts, who seek to use terrorist and guerrilla tactics to regain a haven in Afghanistan. "The people who are left fighting, the Al Qaeda, are among the toughest - the most violent, the most committed to fighting this out to the end," said Pentagon spokeswoman Victoria Clarke.
SO far, the war on terror has struck a hard blow to the Al Qaeda organization led by Saudi-born militant Osama bin Laden, but is far from destroying it, US officials say.
The Afghanistan campaign has overthrown Al Qaeda's key government sponsor, the Taliban, denied Al Qaeda free rein in the country, and destroyed terrorist training camps and other facilities built there by Mr. bin Laden since 1996. Intelligence gathered from the campaign has contributed to terrorism-related arrests of some 1,000 people in 60 countries, defense officials say.
As a result, Al Qaeda is more fragmented, and has more difficulty communicating and maintaining organizational control. Having "lost its aura of invincibility," Al Qaeda may also have more trouble recruiting, the officials assert. Still, smaller, "franchise-type" Al Qaeda groups remain active and are likely acting independently - in pockets of resistance in Afghanistan, remote border areas in Pakistan, and in cells in up to 50 countries. Indeed, several Al Qaeda leaders - including those who carried out the East Africa embassy bombings in 1998 - are at large and "could easily reconstitute an operation," one defense official says.
In Afghanistan in recent weeks, there have been indications that small groups of Al Qaeda are plotting to attack US and other Western forces in what Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld called "a series of terrorist attacks planned" to "kill enough Americans so that we would flee."
Recent incidents include an unexploded truck bomb discovered in Kabul, rocket-propelled grenade attacks on US-controlled airfields, as well as individuals spotted several days ago digging near a minefield around Kandahar - possibly to put mines in, according to US Central Command.
In terms of military operations, disparate pockets of Al Qaeda forces have shown no signs of planning to mount a coordinated attack on US forces in Afghanistan, Pentagon officials say. But the groups that do gather, such as the hundreds now dug-in south of Gardez, are proving to be well-coordinated and tactically skilled enemies.
"There's clearly leadership involved," Rumsfeld said Monday. Enemy fighters managed to pin down US forces in firefights that lasted up to 18 hours. They also damaged several US helicopters and forced one down. Eight US servicemen have died.
Al Qaeda draws on its experience using Afghanistan's rugged geography, cave complexes, and local supporters to its advantage. They "live off the land and rely on the cooperation of communities," says a defense official.
Pentagon officials say it is unclear whether the Al Qaeda members regrouped south of Gardez were those who had escaped the December siege at Tora Bora and fled into Pakistan. Defense officials say US intelligence had been aware of the enemy buildup in the area for weeks or even months.