- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 16, 2002

The United States has withdrawn all but 500 of the 1,200 troops it sent to Operation Anaconda in Afghanistan, as the once-ferocious battle is winding down into "final sweeps" for fleeing enemy fighters, the Pentagon said yesterday.

There are now 500 American and 500 allied and Afghan fighters in the Shah-e-Kot mountain region, south of Gardez, in a mopping-up phase. Hundreds of al Qaeda and Taliban soldiers were killed in two weeks of fierce gunbattles and devastating air strikes, local Afghans say.

"They have in fact gotten to the point now where they're going through the final sweeps of the area, looking into the caves that have been uncovered and those types of things," Marine Corps Gen. Peter Pace, Joint Chiefs of Staff vice chairman, told a Pentagon press conference.

He spoke two weeks after U.S. Central Command kicked off Operation Anaconda with the war's first combined conventional ground and air assault. Maj. Gen. Franklin Hagenbeck, the 10th Mountain Division commander who devised the plan, declared victory this week in a battle that killed off perhaps the last major concentration of Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda army inside Afghanistan.

"The enemy forces that were there, to the best of our ability to monitor, are not there now," Gen. Pace said. "Some have been killed; some have escaped. We don't know the exact numbers."

Differing numbers from varying sources have been offered for how many enemy fighters had assembled in the 50-mile-square Shah-e-Kot valley and how many of them died there. Anti-Taliban Afghans say as many as 800 were killed. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said on Monday that a "great many" al Qaeda fighters were killed. U.S. soldiers in the field suggest the death toll is between 300 and 500.

Eight U.S. Special Forces troops were killed on March 3.

Whatever number is correct, it adds up to victory for U.S. forces. "From a standpoint of the military operation," Gen. Pace said, "the intent to go in and to take this area in Afghanistan and to clear it of Taliban and al Qaeda that has been highly successful."

On Monday, Mr. Rumsfeld said he had seen no reports of enemy fighters escaping, as they did in the mid-December clash at Tora Bora north of Shah-e-Kot. Yesterday, he conceded that an undetermined number had gotten away. It likely means that at a future time and a new place, American forces will have to attack another al Qaeda pocket.

Mr. Rumsfeld suggested that some relatively senior al Qaeda leaders were killed in Operation Anaconda. Units have collected the remains of some in hopes a positive identification can be made using DNA samples from a family member. The FBI is trying to build a repository of DNA samples with which to identify senior members of bin Laden's terror network.

U.S. commanders do not believe bin Laden, or his top aide, Ayman al Zawahiri, were in Shah-e-Kot during what became the war's largest battle. Intelligence officials believe bin Laden is on the run somewhere in eastern Afghanistan, or across the border in Pakistan.

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