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No end in sight

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
20 March 2002

Operation Anaconda was fought over two weeks in mountains near the Afghan town of Gardez. The effects of the battle are fundamentally disputed between the Pentagon and Islamic news agencies. The latter claim that a relatively small number of Taliban militia were able to hold out against far greater US and Afghan forces backed by intense air power, whereas the Pentagon view is that many hundreds of Taliban and al-Qaida troops were killed in a successful operation. There is no independent evidence available but there is a strong and perhaps understandable tendency in the western media to accept the US reports even if they may be open to question.

Whichever version is correct has important implications, not just for the war in Afghanistan but for the expansion of US military operations elsewhere. If the Pentagon view is correct, then there are only a few groups of Taliban and al-Qaida militia still active in Afghanistan and these will quickly be controlled by a combination of air power, anti-Taliban forces and some use of US ground forces, who will now be aided by a contingent of British troops. If the alternative view is right, then the United States could be in the process of getting involved in a substantial guerrilla war in Afghanistan that may limit its ability to take military action in other countries, including Iraq.

The background to Operation Anaconda

Before trying to make sense of the fighting near Gardez, there are several points to remember. In most of the fighting in Afghanistan over the past six months, there has been a consistent process of Taliban militia withdrawing, rather than engaging with anti-Taliban forces supported by heavy US air power. Very few of the Taliban or al-Qaida leadership have been killed or taken into custody - indeed it is still unclear how many al-Qaida fighters have even been engaged in the conflict. Those in custody at Camp X-Ray appear to be low level people with very little information of real value.

Furthermore, the fighting near Gardez was widely reported as being the Taliban’s last stand, but there have already been two earlier “last stands”, in Kandahar and at Tora Bora. In the first case, there was little fighting as Taliban militia withdrew, and at Tora Bora, several days of intense air bombardment did not prevent large numbers of militia withdrawing successfully across the mountains.

Perhaps most significantly, reports from western journalists travelling in Southern Afghanistan indicate a degree of lawlessness and disorder, coupled with a rising anti-American mood in Pashtun areas, that suggests that support for the Taliban has not gone away but may only be dormant.

What, then, of Operation Anaconda? The operation was intended to destroy a group of several hundred militia located in high mountain areas above the village of Shah-i-kot. Unlike Tora Bora, the plan was to use many hundreds of US regular army troops, coupled with US and other special forces to surround the militia, while a combination of heavy bombing and the use of Afghan forces would lead to their defeat.

The operation began on 2 March after several weeks of planning, and was expected to last two to three days. There were initially estimated to be 600 fighters, mostly Arab and Chechen. Heavy fighting on 3-4 March left eight US soldiers dead and over 30 injured and a number of allied Afghan fighters killed and injured. Resistance from the guerrillas was much heavier than expected but 200 were reported to have been killed.

By 5 March, press reports were suggesting that there were up to 2,000 guerrillas in the area, either in caves or in surrounding villages. They were being bombed relentlessly and a local Afghan commander reported that they were low on ammunition and had become very weak. “They can’t escape. They’re surrounded. Slowly we’re pushing in.”

The following day, though, the US sent in substantial reinforcements including 200 more solders and 17 helicopters, having had seven helicopters damaged earlier in the fighting. It was now reported that local Afghans were joining the guerrillas in the mountains, even though “hundreds” had been killed. A US general estimated that 600-700 guerrillas had been actively engaged in the conflict, about half of whom had been killed. The operation was expected to end shortly.

Over the period 7-9 March, bad weather limited the extent of the fighting, but there was an expectation that it would be over, with the defeat of the guerrillas, early in the week beginning 11 March, after perhaps 10 days of fighting. Substantial additional Afghan forces were moved towards the area from Kabul and US sources now spoke of 500-600 guerrillas killed, almost as many as had been earlier estimated to be involved in the whole conflict.

Instead of the fighting escalating as reinforcements arrived, the US withdrew about one third of the 1,200 troops from the area on 10 March saying that the fighting was largely over and would be continued by local Afghan troops. In apparent contradiction to this, local Afghan commanders reported only a pause in the fighting, prior to a possible final offensive within a few days.

There was no further major offensive and the fighting died down over the period 11-14 March. US sources described it as a “mopping up” operation, with US and Afghan forces taking control of the Shah-i-kot valley. At this point there was a wide divergence between the US view of Anaconda and that of some local Afghan commanders allied with the US. The US view was of a substantial victory, with most of the guerrillas killed. One leading Afghan commander took the view, however, that substantial numbers of guerrillas may have successfully moved out of the area. There were also reports that some of those captured during the fighting were actually local farmers rather than guerrillas from other parts of Afghanistan or from abroad.

How many ‘last stands’?

In a very confused situation, some tentative conclusions can be drawn. The first is that US forces met much greater opposition than had been expected. Given that the Taliban and al-Qaida were supposed to have been comprehensively defeated, it is clear that substantial guerrilla units had actually been able to re-group, and that US forces found it necessary to mount a major military operation in the middle of winter. The number of guerrillas killed is a matter of real dispute, with Pentagon officials emphatically rejecting the scepticism expressed by western journalists who visited

Shah-i-kot after the fighting. Little evidence seems available to indicate substantial guerrilla casualties, certainly not in the hundreds. There have been further recent indications from local anti-Taliban leaders that many guerrillas withdrew successfully.

In an interview on 17 March, some two weeks after the operation started, the commander of US ground forces in Afghanistan, General Hagenbeck, remained optimistic about the outcome yet gave a clear indication that there would be further fighting involving US troops. His view was that many guerrillas, including their leaders, had been killed and substantial quantities of equipment and munitions had been destroyed, so much so that guerrilla forces “will have to find new ways of supporting and equipping themselves”.

Even so, he continued, there would be further rounds of attacks on guerrilla units in different parts of southern Afghanistan, with intelligence-gathering planes focusing on two or three areas of potential activity. Perhaps most significant of all was the fact that he indicated some urgency because of a possible counter-attack. “We think that there will be some groups that try to target American and coalition forces, looking for soft targets... We’ve got to get to them before they get to us.”

The implications of this are quite remarkable. After three ‘last stands’, guerrilla forces opposed to the United States in Afghanistan are considered to be sufficiently active and well-organised, even in the middle of winter, to be able to pose a threat to heavily armed US forces supported by overwhelming air power.

The United States now has some 4,000 combat troops in Afghanistan and appears to be in the process of getting sucked into a guerrilla war that may go on for many months. Bear in mind the degree of chaos and disorganisation in many parts of Afghanistan and, most significantly, that local Afghans may have joined guerrilla forces fighting in Shah-i-kot, rather than fled from them. It could be that we are seeing the development of a longer-term conflict.

‘War on terror’: slowing down or hotting up?

Strong support for this line of analysis is given by the US request to Britain to provide 1,700 troops from 45 Commando trained in mountain warfare. While part of the motivation may be to demonstrate that this is a coalition operation, the real implication is that US forces have found it so difficult to fight the guerrilla forces at high altitude that they require additional help.

There is also a political cost which has not been widely reported. Special forces aside, the prime reason given for the British armed forces to be in Afghanistan was as peace-keepers in Kabul. In this way they would be seen to retain a more neutral presence, while the Americans engaged in large-scale combat. Now the British have lost this apparent legitimacy, as they too adopt an active military role.

Politicians can insist that the latter involves just the ‘mopping up’ of small areas of resistance, but their words simply do not square with General Hagenbeck’s suspicion that Taliban/al Qaida forces may be capable of offensive action.

If the General is right, and the war in Afghanistan stretches into the spring and summer, then the rate at which President Bush’s ‘war on terror’ extends to other parts of the world may be slower than anticipated. This has considerable political implications as unease grows in Europe and outright opposition develops in the Middle East.

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