Americans advance on Afghan front
By Marcella Bombardieri, Globe Staff, and Bryan Bender, Globe Correspondent, 03/13/2002
LAKDIWAL, Afghanistan -- US and allied forces moved into new territory in the mountains of eastern Afghanistan yesterday as they flushed out battered remnants of Al Qaeda and Taliban fighters through airstrikes and ground battles.
US bombers pounded enemy positions and ground soldiers explored caves and tunnels around Shah-e-Kot that were once occupied by Al Qaeda and Taliban fighters, where they found at least a few dead enemy fighters, according to Afghan radio communiques.
Early today, a US spokesman said US and Afghan forces had claimed control of the entire Shah-e-Kot valley.
Major Bryan Hilferty told reporters that no more than 100 enemy fighters were believed to still be in the area.
"The Al Qaeda and Taliban are free to surrender," he said. "So far, they have all decided to die."
Even as the campaign, known as Operation Anaconda, was wrapping up, US special forces were reported to be beefing up their efforts elsewhere in Afghanistan, gathering intelligence on other areas where Al Qaeda and Taliban fighters may be regrouping, officials said, an indication that the offensive is likely to be followed by similar operations.
US and coalition aircraft flew 180 sorties over Afghanistan yesterday, dropping more than 100 bombs on remaining Taliban and Al Qaeda positions in the mountains of Shah-e-Kot, bringing to more than 2,500 the number of weapons targeted at the network of more than 40 caves, defense officials said.
American and allied forces faced only sporadic resistance from small pockets of enemy fighters as they operated around a mountain ridge known as "the whale's back."
While military officials said more than 1,200 US ground forces were working with several thousand Afghan troops loyal to the new government in Kabul, the allies yesterday appeared to have had conflicting views about how to bring an end to the 10-day-old campaign, the bloodiest fighting for US forces in the war in Afghanistan.
General Gul Haidar, a former Northern Alliance commander whose forces have reinforced ground troops in recent days, is reportedly trying to arrange negotiations with the holdouts, including possibly a 10-day cease-fire that will allow them to surrender or escape. Local officials said the negotiations could provide a way out for the commander of the Al Qaeda and Taliban forces, former Taliban military commander Saifurahman.
"Gul Haidar asked us to go and speak to the people and try for negotiations," said Ghulam Mohammed Farooq, deputy police chief of Zormat, a town close to Shah-e-Kot. "He promised, `I can stop the fighting for 10 days if Saifurahman is ready to join us or leave the area.' "
Many of the leaders of Zormat, like Farooq, are openly sympathetic to fellow Pashtun Saifurahman, who is the son of a celebrated mujahideen. Haidar, on the other hand, is seen as an outsider and leader of a mostly ethnic Tajik and Panjshiri force and has no apparent stake in trying to appease the remaining Taliban and Al Qaeda forces.
American officials have rebuffed negotiation proposals.
"The position the whole time has been these folks had the opportunity to surrender," said Major Brad Lowell, spokesman for the US Central Command in Tampa. "Clearly they can still surrender, and our stand at that point would be to move individuals into detention facilities to be screened."
Apache helicopter gunships flew close to the Almar mountain range yesterday morning, and Afghan troops moved farther into the mountains. Later in the day, three pickup trucks full of US special forces headed off toward the mountains from this tiny mud-hut village a few miles from the front line. US and allied forced encountered little resistance.
A group of US special forces met with members of the Gardez town council to enlist their help in preventing Al Qaeda and Taliban troops from receiving food, supplies, and shelter from sympathetic local Afghans.
There had been indications in recent days that the remaining Al Qaeda and Taliban forces, which numbered about 1,000 when the operation began March 2 but are now said to be about 100, may be losing their will and power to fight. Defense officials said this week that interrogations of fighters captured in recent days indicated that the enemy forces may have split into factions during the battle, with some supporting a negotiated settlement.
The Pentagon announced yesterday that US forces have detained more enemy fighters captured during combat and attempting to slip across the border into Pakistan.
"We've detained less than 20 folks," said Brigadier General John W. Rosa, deputy director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
The US death toll in the operation remains at eight and the number of wounded at 49. Thirty-four of them have returned to the battle, the Pentagon reported. Three Afghans have been killed.
A senior Afghan commander told Reuters that the rebel fighters were full retreat toward the Pakistan border.
"The battle of Shah-e-Kot is over. A coalition of both Afghan and US forces has taken control of the entire Shah-e-Kot Valley," said General Abdullah Joyenda.
As the military effort in the Shah-e-Kot area entered its final stages, US special forces were reported to be closing in on other Al Qaeda and Taliban fighters in other areas of Afghanistan.
Afghan government officials in Kabul said they plan to send as many as 5,000 troops to four provinces around the capital where Al Qaeda and Taliban forces are also suspected of regrouping. US officials acknowledged that special forces are working with the Afghans to identify other targets.
"There's still a lot of work to be done in Afghanistan, and there are still pockets of resistance that we'll have to root out," said Defense Department spokeswoman Victoria Clarke.
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