Anaconda ends; battle winds on
As the US declares Operation Anaconda a success, Afghans predict a new fight in Khost province.
KHOST, AFGHANISTAN — 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.
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.
There is no evidence that anyone senior is up on Mister Bill, but that shouldn't matter, he says. "The Americans are only thinking about a few big guys, but they're not thinking about all the other guys. Maybe they will make a new Osama, or change their name," he says, a Kalashnikov resting across his lap.
He didn't find it necessary to walk around in his own family-run military headquarters so well-armed up until a week ago, he says. But just outside his door, he and another brother a senior military commander were almost assassinated by unknown assailants. Three bodyguards took the bullets instead, and died.
Wazir Khan is the youngest of the seven Khan sons. He and his brothers have been scions of power here since their father served as a parliament member during the reign of KingMohammed Zahir Shah.
Wazir was born and brought up in Pakistan during his eldest brother's struggle against the Soviets in the 1980s.
There, he learned to speak a comfortable English. That has helped his older brother's militias communicate with US forces more smoothly in order to make sure these Afghans play an integral part in the war against Al Qaeda and Taliban fugitives.
But in the battle against Taliban and Al Qaeda forces, he says echoing complaints that pop up as frequently as the flag-festooned tombs of martyrs that color the brown, mountainous countryside American intelligence has been weak. The US forces, he says, are too focused on finding Osama bin Laden and Mullah Muhammad Omar overlooking the possibility of new leaders springing up in their place. In a separate interview, the elder brother, Badsha Khan, says the US has been too slow to act on his information.
"I was the man telling the Americans that they were in Shah-i-Kot, but they did not take care of that soon enough, and that's why [Al Qaeda and Taliban forces] are getting stronger here," says Badsha, a massive man who holds court with a gleaming ammunition belt spread across his wide chest. "That's why they were not that successful there and suffered losses," he says.
Malik Jan, another commander in this area, also worries that the Al Qaeda forces are not just attracting local villagers, but are confusing some of their pro-government troops.
At one point during the recent fighting, an Al Qaeda fighter got on a megaphone and addressed the Afghans in Pashto. "They said, 'You are Muslims. We are Muslims. We don't want to kill you. Send the Americans in,' " says Malik Jan.
Later on, after the heaviest fighting of Operation Anaconda was past, he says, about 300 of the anti-Al Qaeda Afghan forces were captured. They had gone into the caves looking for evidence, thinking most of the fighters who had been holed up in them were dead. They were not.
Instead of killing them or taking them prisoner, the Al Qaeda forces tried to sway them, and then set them free.
"When we sent everyone into the caves, our men were surrounded, and the Al Qaeda took them," says Malik Jan.
"They arrested 300 of our men, they took our weapons and jumpers and uniforms," he says. "They said, 'Go back to your bosses, and tell them we don't want to fight you and kill you. We want to kill the Americans.'"