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Operation Anaconda Ending in Muddle

March 16, 2002

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GARDEZ, Afghanistan (AP) _ After 12 days of bombing and ground fighting by about 2,000 U.S. and Afghan troops, Operation Anaconda is ending much as it began _ in confusion.

So far, there is little hard evidence to support claims by U.S. officers that hundreds of al-Qaida and Taliban fighters were killed.

Afghan fighters said about 25 bodies were found in the initial sweep of the area, and Maj. Gen. Frank L. Hagenbeck told reporters Thursday the number of bodies found so far was in ``the double digits.″

Some _ possibly many _ bodies may be buried in caves that collapsed during the ferocious U.S. air bombardment. Others have been blown to bits.

There also is disagreement concerning how many caves are in the area around the village of Shah-e-Kot.

Afghan commander Zia Lodin, one of the leaders of the final assault on al-Qaida and Taliban positions, said there were no more than five there.

A U.S. special forces officer, who refused to give his name, put the figure at perhaps a ``couple of dozen″ but added, ``Lord knows how many more are on the other side of the mountain.″

Another of the problems facing military planners as they assess enemy casualties is uncertainty about how many al-Qaida and Taliban fighters were there in the first place.

Lodin estimated there were roughly 300 al-Qaida fighters in Shah-e-Kot when the battle began March 2. Another Afghan commander, Khushkyar, repeated that estimate but added ``most of them left″ during the battle.

``We heard roughly between 100 and 250 and I think there were more than that,″ said one U.S. special forces officer identifying himself only as Mark.

At Bagram air base north of Kabul, Hagenbeck said Thursday he believed about 1,000 al-Qaida fighters were in Shah-e-Kot when the battle began.

From the 20 prisoners taken during Operation Anaconda, Hagenbeck said U.S. interrogators learned that some ``second- and third-tier″ al-Qaida leaders had been killed at Shah-e-Kot. He ordered DNA tests on remains to determine whether any of al-Qaida’s top leadership, including Osama bin Laden, were among the dead.

Afghan commanders say they have received no indication that any al-Qaida or Taliban leadership heavyweights were among those holed up in the Shah-e-Kot area.

One commander, Naeem Sadat, said he had interrogated two injured Taliban fighters _ both separately _ who were caught trying to escape the fierce aerial bombardment.

They told him there were 14 Arab commanders and 250 Chechens in Shah-e-Kot before the battle. They were joined by several hundred Afghans, but many of them deserted and fled when the bombing began.

So far, the results of Operation Anaconda are reminiscent of the experience last December at Tora-Bora. For a month, U.S. bombs smashed into the mountains where hundreds of Afghan fighters put on the U.S. payroll tried to flush out the al-Qaida defenders.

The Afghans insisted that bin Laden himself was there.

When the battle ended, all that was found was a handful of bodies and a few prisoners. The rest had fled across the mountains to Pakistan. And there was no sign of bin Laden.

The frustrations encountered in both engagements underscore the difficulty of tracking down al-Qaida and Taliban holdouts in this rugged, mountainous land, whose people have more than 20 years of experience waging guerrilla war.

At Shah-e-Kot, the United States put its own troops on the ground with Afghan fighters, who were weaned on war and knew the rugged terrain, to try to cut off the escape routes.

But the waves of mountain ranges and thousands of paths dug into the mountainside by U.S.-backed guerrillas fighting Soviet invaders provide a maize of escape routes.

Neighboring Pakistan, with its lawless tribal regions bordering Afghanistan, provides places of easy refuge.

Getting reliable intelligence further complicates the effort. In trying to estimate the number of dead, U.S. special forces said they heard from Surmad ``that they have constructed 150 coffins.″

In Muslim Afghanistan, however, the dead are buried wrapped in a white shroud _ never in coffins.