- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 12, 2002

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld declared yesterday that the battle of Gardez had entered a "mopping-up process," after an 11-day air and ground assault that killed hundreds of al Qaeda and Taliban fighters.
Unlike other major battles, such as Tora Bora, where large numbers of enemy warriors escaped, Operation Anaconda left no way out. Commanders assigned an American and Afghan blocking force to a 50-mile-wide ring around the Shahi Kot Valley south of Gardez in eastern Afghanistan. Local Afghans said would-be escapees were shot.
Mr. Rumsfeld said he had seen no reports of anyone escaping.
"We do know there are a great many al Qaeda that have been killed," the defense secretary said at the Pentagon, where he greeted representatives of 29 countries who make up the anti-terrorist coalition. "We do have several al Qaeda prisoners that have been captured and will be interrogated. And, of course, as the mopping-up process continues, additional informatiion will be gained."
Mr. Rumsfeld said final victory may come by week's end at Gardez.
Asked if any of Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda fighters had slipped through the net, Mr. Rumsfeld said, "I have no information that people have either successfully gotten in or gotten out."
Military officials believe the al Qaeda force that assembled near Gardez over the past weeks is led by midlevel commanders, and not by bin Laden himself or any top aides. The United States still believes bin Laden is alive and on the run somewhere in northeastern Afghanistan or just across the border in Pakistan.
As Mr. Rumsfeld spoke, Anaconda continued. Coalition ground and air forces were attacking small pockets of perhaps 100 to 200 enemy hiding in a ridge line that U.S. Central Command has nicknamed "the whale." Army Green Berets worked in small teams near the enemy holdouts, pointing out targets for B-52 bombers and Navy jet fighters.
Army Apache attack helicopters and Air Force AC-130 gunships rained rockets and artillery rounds on the trapped enemy. Land forces hunted, cave by cave, for the enemy in the cold, rocky terrain 10,000 feet above sea level.
"The al Qaeda and Taliban extremists seem to be in much smaller pockets now, not the larger groups that we saw the first few days," said Maj. Bryan Hilferty, a 10th Mountain Division spokesman. "We will continue to work our way through the area until we are satisfied we have taken out all of the al Qaeda terrorists."
Yesterday marked six months since bin Laden's terrorists attacked America, and roughly five months since Central Command began attacks against their havens in Afghanistan.
"The people have been liberated," Mr. Rumsfeld said, giving a midwar report card. "The al Qaeda in that country are no longer using the country as a haven or a sanctuary for terrorists [or] to conduct terrorist attacks against the rest of the world. We have the al Qaeda in Afghanistan on the run,"
About 400 soldiers of the 101st Airborne and 10th Mountain divisions left the battle Sunday and returned to Bagram air base north of Kabul. But Mr. Rumsfeld said new combatants would be flown in, maintaining a force of more than 2,000 American and Afghan fighters.
As the battle of Gardez opened at "first light" March 2, Army soldiers infiltrated the area in groups of 30 to 40 aboard twin-rotor CH-47 and MH-47 Chinooks.
"I shouldn't even be here. I should be in high school," said 17-year-old Pfc. Daniel Menard of the 10th Mountain Division. "It would be good if they came out the caves. All they do is hide."
Pfc. Menard was among the first soldiers to enter Shahi Kot. His unit ran into more enemy fire than expected and remained pinned down for 20 hours before aerial bombing made the area safe enough to conduct an extraction.
"They were shooting at us from high in the mountains," said Sgt. 1st Class Michael Peterson. "They were hitting us with everything they had. We knew we would make contact. We clearly did not think we'd come in that close."
During the siege, Pfc. Jason Ashline, 20, of New York was shot twice in the chest. Sgt. Raul Lopez, 27, of Pennsylvania came to his aid, launching a grenade at the enemy and then dragging Pfc. Ashline to safety.


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