- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 28, 2002

The last days of Operation Anaconda produced a surprise for U.S. soldiers on a dangerous cave-by-cave search at 8,000 feet in cold, mountainous Afghanistan.
By March 18, most of Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda fighters had either died in the Shah-e-Kot region south of Gardez, or fled. But one lone terrorist clung to his bunker. His defense was a light machine gun taken from an Army Ranger, one of eight Americans killed during Anaconda's ground assault phase on March 3.
1st Lt. Richard C. Phillips, 27, told what happened next when a platoon of the 10th Mountain Division cautiously approached the cave two weeks later.
"It wasn't a good feeling because one of the enemy personnel, the enemy personnel that they destroyed, was reaching for a U.S. light machine gun to assault," said Lt. Phillips, who leads another infantry platoon that conducted search missions. "And fortunately, the 3rd Platoon was able to kill him before he could use it, use that weapon on them. … Those men died in a combat zone, and the enemy was trying to use our own equipment against us."
Lt. Phillilps, and other division soldiers, spoke to reporters yesterday at the Pentagon via a teleconference from their base at Bagram air field, north of Kabul, Afghanistan. They provided an eye-witness account of the waning days of the U.S. military's largest ground offensive since the 1991 Gulf war, where the U.S. Army routed Saddam Hussein's Republican Guard on the flat desert.
The Afghan battle required different tactics: helicopter-borne light infantry and commandos, backed by air power, fought amid the country's steep ravines and jagged ridges at 8,000 to 10,000 feet.
"Some of the units … had badly broken ankles, just twisting their knees," said Lt. Phillips. "So the terrain can be difficult. You just have to maintain the old Army saying, 'three points of contact,' when you're moving up the steep inclines."
Inside the cave on March 18 lay remnants of the worst incident, casualtywise, for American troops in the 6-month-old Afghan conflict. Al Qaeda fighters gunned down eight U.S. commandos as they infiltrated a mountain ridge.
The 3rd Platoon found some of the men's gear: the machine gun, an automatic weapon, commercial Global Positioning System (GPS) units, and some Kevlar helmets that had protected the Rangers.
The lieutenant's platoon was patroling part of Shah-e-Kot as Gen. Tommy Franks, head of the war in Afghanistan, declared victory and an end to Anaconda on March 19.
Lt. Phillips's men told of the accuracy of Air Force and Navy precision-guided weapons that hit some cave entrances before soldiers went in.
"Once we actually hit the ground, got off the birds, we started rolling through the ravine, and there was fighter positions everywhere," said Staff Sgt. Kevin A. Schiedeck, 24, a team leader. "But the night prior, they had come in and bombed them pretty good, to where we were pretty much just coming in and cleaning out all the ammunition and equipment that they had left behind and destroyed as we went along clearing the zone."
His platoon took part in Operation Harpoon, and then Polar Harpoon two missions aimed at a mountain ridge full of al Qaeda fighters that, to military planners, resembled a whale's backbone.
After the eight special operations personnel died, some Air Force officers privately questioned the strategy of not bombing the Shah-e-Kot caves for days or even weeks before inserting ground troops.
"The questioin is, why did Franks and the military abandon what had been spectacularly successful since Day One," said one officer. "Bomb them until they're dead or on the run. The only change should be, put up roadblocks so they don't escape."
However, when air power was used it was devastating.
"Some of the bunkers that we came across that had been bombed out, some were completely destroyed. … The bomb had landed practically directly on them, and it was just a big crater with scorched earth," Lt. Phillips said.
Added Sgt. Schiedeck: "Once we rolled in there, there wasn't much left. I mean, like we said, mangled metals and vehicles and just ordnance everywhere."
Lt. Phillips said the maze of caves and bunkers that pockmarked the 50-mile-by-50-mile Shah-e-Kot valley revealed an al Qaeda genius for designing defenses.
"One of the bunkers that we destroyed was 14 feet long and you could only see about 5 feet of it, but it was about 10 feet deep," the officer said. "And the bunkers were not just set up randomly, they were interlocked. Whoever designed the scheme for their defensive positions, they knew what they were doing, and they were well in place."


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