- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 13, 2002

U.S. soldiers have begun the dangerous task of searching more than 40 cave fortresses south of Gardez that once held hundreds of al Qaeda and Taliban fighters.
The cautious cave clearings came on the 12th day of Operation Anaconda in which once-ferocious fighting has slowed to sporadic gunbattles as U.S. and Afghan soldiers teamed up side by side to wipe out remaining enemy pockets.
"We have started, but are nowhere near completing entering the large majority of those caves," Air Force Brig. Gen. John Rosa said at a Pentagon news conference. "With the booby traps, with land mines, with unexploded ordnance, we've got to go very slow, very calculating, very carefully."
Gen. Rosa said clusters of al Qaeda and Taliban fighters are cropping out in other places outside eastern Afghanistan. It is a development that means U.S. combatants will likely be fighting in the country for months.
"I think that the pockets are still out there," he said. "You have to go and treat each one of these pockets individually."
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said on Monday he had seen no reports of any enemy fighters escaping from the Shahi Kot Valley, south of Gardez, during the war's largest battle.
"If any, it's very small numbers," his spokeswoman, Victoria Clarke, said yesterday.
Escape routes have become a big issue in the war. In mid-December, when hundreds of al Qaeda terrorists were holed up in Tora Bora, many fled before local Afghans attacked their positions.
Military critics have blamed the missed oppportunity to kill or capture enemy forces in previous battles on Army Gen. Tommy Franks for failing to encircle the area with ground troops. In the battle of Gardez, Gen. Franks, who is running the war as head of U.S. Central Command, sent in 1,200 ground troops to attack the enemy and block escape routes. He positioned another 1,000 Afghan allies to watch mountain passes for fleeing enemy fighters.
"We are fighting together," Gen. Rosa said. "In many cases, we're fighting side by side."
The Pentagon gave no official estimate of enemy forces hunkered down in Shahi Kot when Operation Anaconada began on March 2. Local Afghan commanders say as many as 1,000 fighers had assembled in caves and tunnels in a 50-square-mile area. Gen. Rosa said the enemy force numbered fewer than 1,000, but declined to give a specific number. Mr. Rumsfeld said Monday a "great many" al Qaeda fighters had been killed in the battle.
When the war in Afghanistan began Oct. 7, the Pentagon estimated that the al Qaeda network, Osama bin Laden's personal army of mostly Arab fighters, numbered up to 4,000.
Eight American servicemen have been killed in the Gardez fighting and another 49 were wounded. Of those, 34 are back on duty, the Pentagon says.
"There has been sporadic fighting, but fighting continues," Gen. Rosa said.
Aerial bombing is being directed at a mountain ridge line that Central Command has nicknamed "the whale" because of its resemblance to a whale's backbone.
In Gardez, 1,000 fresh Afghan troops dispatched by interim government leader Hamid Karzai arrived and began preparing for attacks. The Associated Press quoted commander Zia Loden as saying they had breached the first line of defense, but were stopped by hositle fire and land mines.
"We will continue combat operations in this area until we remove these parasites from Afghanistan," said Maj. Byran Hilferty, spokesman for the 10th Mountain Division. That division, and the 101st Airborne Division, have supplied the lion's share of ground troops in Operation Anaconda.
The Associated Press said a delegation of U.S. Green Berets met yesterday with the Gardez Town Council to urge them to prevent locals from feeding and sheltering al Qaeda and Taliban fighters.
"We were asked by the local authorities not to give any shelter to al Qaeda or the Taliban, and we are committed not to give them shelter, because we don't want trouble in our area," said Khan Marjan Wazir, a village leader.

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