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Information Gap Hampers US Assault

March 7, 2002

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GARDEZ, Afghanistan (AP) _ The 25-vehicle column of U.S. and Afghan troops was rumbling through a mountain pass when al-Qaida mortars rained down on them, killing one American and three Afghans.

``We just ran in every direction,″ one of the Afghan fighters, Tameen, said. ``We didn’t expect anything.″

Faulty information _ much of it provided by Afghans unfamiliar with the terrain _ may have been responsible for losses on the first day of Operation Anaconda _ the biggest offensive of the Afghan war.

In a country where alliances are fluid and warlords plentiful, U.S. troops have been forced to rely on information from Afghan commanders they barely know. The Americans turned to the Afghans because they lacked firsthand knowledge about a country they had paid little attention to since the Soviets withdrew in 1989.

Problems dogged the start of Operation Anaconda on Saturday. The 25-vehicle convoy was to attack al-Qaida forces in the village of Shah-e-Kot.

Afghan fighters as well as their American comrades expected to confront about 150-200 al-Qaida defenders. Now it appears the number was far greater.

And the joint force did not expect to encounter al-Qaida fighters in the mountain pass leading to Shah-e-Kot, Afghan fighters said.

When the mortars rained down, the trapped fighters tried to withdraw, only to discover their escape route had been cut by al-Qaida.

U.S. forces had to call in U.S. Army Apache helicopters and fighter jets to drive off the attackers and allow the coalition forces to evacuate the area.

``They called in the helicopters to save them,″ one commander, Isatullah, said. ``If they did not have them they would all have died.″

Isatullah, who like many Afghans uses one name, blamed the confusion on the fact the Americans sent in Afghan troops who were from outside the province. They knew the area little better than the Americans, he said.

``What were they thinking of getting their intelligence from a commander who was not even from this area?″ Isatullah said. ``They were told there were very few (enemy fighters) and then they discovered there were many more.″

The commander of the Shah-e-Kot attack, Zia Lodin, was unavailable for comment because his unit is back in the fight. With combat operations still under way, U.S. military officers have been careful not to criticize any of their Afghan allies publicly.

The U.S. commander of the offensive, Maj. Gen. Frank L. Hagenbeck, acknowledged that initial estimates of al-Qaida and Taliban strength were low. However, he defended Zia, saying the convoy got bogged down in mud and found itself exposed to attack.

The al-Qaida and Taliban fighters joining the battle in the Shah-e-Kot area are boiling up from surrounding regions, according to a U.S. official in Washington who spoke on condition of anonymity. In small groups, they are arriving from Gardez, Ghazni, Khost and Zormat, as well as a few who are crossing the border from Pakistan.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld defended U.S. estimates of the number of al-Qaida and Taliban fighters but acknowledged ``it’s not possible to know precisely the number of people that are engaged in that activity.″

``We’ve been looking at that area for weeks and have a great deal of intelligence information,″ Rumsfeld said Thursday at the Pentagon. ``But it is not possible to have a good count.″

Some Afghan commanders, however, acknowledged tactical mistakes.

``We both made mistakes, the Americans and the Afghans,″ said Abdul Matin Hasankhiel, another commander in the area.

Although the American initial estimate of enemy troop strength was low, villagers gave The Associated Press a figure much closer to that now being acknowledged by the Pentagon.

One resident, Nooruddin, said last weekend that 600 al-Qaida, mostly Chechens and Arabs, came to the village two months ago looking for a place to hide. U.S. officials now talk of an initial force of about 800.

The al-Qaida fighters and their Taliban allies had been stocking up on flour and sugar in Surmad, about 20 miles south of Gardez, villagers said.

Facing the Americans and their Afghan allies is a force commanded by a former Taliban officer, Saif Rahman. A plaque honoring his father’s accomplishments as a guerrilla commander in the war against the Soviets stands along the main road.

``Surmad people still feel a lot for Rahman,″ Isatullah said. ``Most people want al-Qaida to leave the area, but in Surmad, it is possible that there can be some guerrilla-type action″ once the main battles are over.

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