- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 3, 2002

GARDEZ, Afghanistan American and Afghan troops backed by U.S. jets yesterday attacked Taliban and al Qaeda forces regrouping in eastern Afghanistan in the biggest U.S.-led ground operation of the war on terror this year.
One American was killed and an specified number were wounded in the attack, during which warplanes for the first time dropped bombs designed to send suffocating blasts through cave complexes, the Pentagon said.
Three Afghan fighters also were killed in the ground assault, which began at dawn. It made little headway in dislodging Taliban and al Qaeda fighters, who fought back with artillery, mortars and heavy machine guns, Afghan officials said.
The newly developed "thermobaric" bombs were tested in December, and officials in January had said they would be rushed to the region.
Afghan fighters interviewed here said the Americans told them about 4,000 al Qaeda and Taliban warriors were holed up in the mountains.
"Our goal since the beginning … has been to eliminate al Qaeda and Taliban elements in the country, so they cannot reconstitute," said Maj. A.C. Roper, spokesman for the Army's 101st Airborne Division at the American-held Kandahar airport in southern Afghanistan. "We are moving methodically to identify those elements so we can achieve that goal."
It was the largest U.S.-led ground operation in the anti-terror campaign since a December attack on the Tora Bora cave complex, U.S. military officials said.
A U.S. defense official said a force of 1,500 assembled for the battle, made up mostly of Afghan fighters who were joined by U.S. Special Forces and assault troops from the Army's 101st Airborne Division.
Afghan forces broke off the attack in early afternoon and withdrew, possibly to allow U.S. bombers to soften up Taliban and al Qaeda positions overnight. Heavy bombers could be heard flying toward the area late yesterday.
Neither the former Taliban supreme leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar, nor al Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden, identified by President Bush as the mastermind of the September 11 terror attacks, is believed to be in the area.
Pakistan closed its border to prevent escape by fleeing members of al Qaeda or the Taliban. Reporters saw U.S. military helicopters rushing toward the snowy mountains where the battle was waged.
Ubaidullah Khan, a resident of the nearby Pakistani border town of Miram Shah, said the attack was carried out after al Qaeda leaders rebuffed a surrender offer from local Afghan officials.
"We have surrounded the al Qaeda and Taliban," said Saif Ullah, a member of the local governing council in Paktia province's Gardez, 20 miles north of the assault.
Remote, rugged and honeycombed with caves, the mountains around Gardez have been a hiding place for Afghan warriors since guerrillas used them as a base for their fight against Soviet troops in the 1980s.
Former Taliban front-line commander Saif Rahman was believed to be leading the Taliban and Taliban-allied foreign forces still in hiding there.
Paktia was also a stronghold of Jalaluddin Haqqani, a U.S.-backed rebel commander in the 1980s who joined the Taliban and is sought by U.S. authorities.
American warplanes and helicopters opened the attack Friday night, pounding suspected al Qaeda and Taliban hide-outs into yesterday morning.
AP reporters saw a dozen U.S. military helicopters taking off from a landing strip in Logar province south of Kabul, kicking up clouds of brown dust as they sped away. They included at least one transport helicopter. Local residents said the helicopters had shuttled weapons and ammunition toward the fighting since dawn.
"The Americans said, 'First we are bombing, and then we will launch an attack,'" Afghan fighter Jan Mohammed said at the Gardez hospital.
"The helicopters were rocketing, and the planes were bombing. It was too much," a doctor, Naguibullah, said at the Gardez hospital.
Americans and their Afghan allies threw at least 380 Afghan fighters, moving with about 30 U.S. Special Forces, into the offensive. Afghan forces wore black wool caps with white pieces of paper on the tops, so U.S. helicopter pilots could distinguish them from Taliban and al Qaeda.
Afghan officials say al Qaeda and Taliban fighters are regrouping in the mountains and just over the border in Pakistan, urging the Islamic faithful to wage holy war against the United States.
Wives and children of al Qaeda, along with widows and families of dead al Qaeda members, also are believed to be in hiding there.
The al Qaeda fighters are receiving support from a variety of groups, including Kashmiri separatists, Islamic militants in Pakistan and former officials of Pakistan's intelligence service, Afghan sources say.
Before this latest action, four American servicemen had been killed in combat in the U.S.-led campaign in Afghanistan that began Oct. 7. A CIA agent was killed during a prison riot while interrogating detainees. There have been 14 noncombat American deaths, many in helicopter crashes.
In Pakistan, a senior government official at the border town of Miram Shah yesterday said troops have blocked all routes to prevent escape of al Qaeda and Taliban fighters fleeing the attack. The official, Javed Marwat, said a 60-mile strip with Afghanistan was closed.
A tribal elder, Haji Rasool Khan, said by telephone that his Madakhel tribe would not give shelter to any al Qaeda troops on the run.
The bombardment is considered to be the biggest attack of its kind since U.S. bombing in January against the cave complex at Zawar Kili in Paktia province.

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