- The Washington Times - Monday, March 4, 2002

SURMAD, Afghanistan U.S. bombers pounded al Qaeda and Taliban positions in the eastern mountains of Afghanistan yesterday after a 1,500-strong coalition ground attack the day before failed to dislodge the well-armed renegades.
No major ground action was reported yesterday. However, U.S. Chinook helicopters ferried in supplies to American and other troops still in the hills, a local commander said, signaling preparations for a new round of ground fighting.
Afghan troops warned that the operation to dislodge the regrouping Taliban and al Qaeda forces from their hide-outs in the mountain caves here in Paktia province was far from over.
"You can't do everything in one operation," said Raza Khan, an Afghan fighter recovering from Saturday's battle at the hospital in Gardez, the provincial capital. "This is Afghanistan. This is a guerrilla war."
Leaflets dropped by U.S. aircraft on the arid plains of the province urged residents to cooperate: "Hand over Taliban and al Qaeda or you will be destroyed. Come forward with information about Taliban and al Qaeda," read the leaflets, written in Afghanistan's two most common languages, Pashtu and Dari.
One American soldier and three Afghan fighters were killed Saturday on the first day of the ground operation, the Pentagon said. Six Americans were injured and airlifted out, a doctor at Gardez hospital said.
The assault, which began with bombing raids late Friday, was believed to be the largest joint U.S.-Afghan military operation of the 5-month-old terrorism war. Pro-U.S. Afghan troops approached the hide-outs from three directions to isolate the renegades and prevent them from escaping.
Yesterday's operations were mostly limited to air strikes as B-52s and other warplanes repeatedly pounded targets in the Shah-e-Kot mountains 20 miles east of Surmad and the Kharwar range to the west in Logar province.
The bombardments sent thick, black plumes of smoke above the snowcapped peaks and shook the ground in Surmad, where a constant stream of bombers streaked overhead.
One Afghan commander, Abdul Matin Hassan Kheil, said his men came under fire yesterday from mortars, heavy artillery and rockets fired from al Qaeda positions where Arabs, Chechens and Pakistanis were believed holed up.
"You can see it is a big operation," said Mr. Kheil, who led 50 fighters at a front-line position. He said coalition forces were dug in about one mile from al Qaeda bases in the Shah-e-Kot mountains.
At least three Chinook helicopters, which zoomed toward the mountains yesterday afternoon flanked by two jets, were supplying ammunition and food to American forces still in the hills, he said.
Mr. Kheil estimated it would take a month to push the renegades from their mountain strongholds.
Saturday's ground attack, carried out in snow-covered mountains ranging from 8,300 to 11,600 feet above sea level, appeared to have made little headway in dislodging the Taliban and al Qaeda fighters.
"Firefights have been intense at times in heavy combat action," Maj. A.C. Roper, spokesman of the 101st Army division in southern Kandahar, told reporters.
A U.S.-led force of 1,500 Afghan allies, U.S. Special Forces and troops from the Army's 101st Airborne assault unit had assembled for the battle, a U.S. defense official said. Australian and Canadian troops also took part.
The Afghan allies made up the bulk of the force and approached the front from three different directions, some of them using pickup trucks rented for $200 from the Gardez bazaar, Afghans said.
About 600 fighters accompanied by at least 40 U.S. soldiers approached from Gardez, north of Surmad, said Safi Ullah, a member of the Gardez town council, or shura.

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