- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 5, 2002

Allied military commanders shifted tactics for the ongoing battle in eastern Afghanistan, allowing large numbers of enemy fighters to reassemble south of Gardez before striking with the United States' first combined ground and air assault.
The aim is to bring more killing power directly to ground level, while blocking escape routes that in the past provided a second life to Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda terrorist army.
Bin Laden's fighters still are able to communicate with cell and satellite phones, messengers and short-range radios. After being chased from Tora Bora, Zhawar Kili and other hide-outs in eastern Afghanistan, the enemy forces were slowly regrouping in an area known as Shah-e-Kot, near Gardez.
American ground and aerial surveillance systems watched and listened for weeks but did not strike immediately. Patience won out.
"You're in an area that has been reasonably hospitable to the Taliban and the al Qaeda, you then begin to plan an operation," Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said at the Pentagon yesterday of the 4-day-old Operation Anaconda.
"And you have a choice: You can go after and pick off one person individually and ask him, 'Would you please surrender?' or you can plan a major operation … and then do what we're doing," the secretary said.
The operation drew praise from some military analysts. They had faulted commanders for not using larger numbers of ground troops to attack al Qaeda. They said yesterday the United States finally had unleashed the type of devastating ground fire needed to complement an already robust air offensive.
"The thing that I'm very encouraged by is we appear to have rediscovered the truth of our joint doctrine, which is these various elements of combat power work together better than they work separately," said retired Army Col. Kenneth Allard, an analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
U.S. military commanders assembled the largest U.S. ground forces to date in an Enduring Freedom operation. A force of about 800 troops is composed of 10th Mountain Division light infantry, 101st Airborne attack helicopters and a variety of special-operations soldiers. The force is teamed with European and Australian commandos and a specially trained Afghan force of 1,000. Overhead were AC-130 artillery gunships, fighter jets and heavy bombers.
The idea, said one source, was to let the al Qaeda and hard-core Taliban forces come together to present a larger target in what could be the war's last major offensive.
The operation, in the planning stages for weeks, differed from American tactics in two previous engagements in the same region, near the Pakistani border.
In Tora Bora in mid-December, American aircraft repeatedly bombed cave entrances as Afghan fighters, with limited support from American Special Forces, fought against al Qaeda holdouts. Hundreds of al Qaeda members, including bin Laden, escaped through the region's ribbons of mountain trails leading to Pakistan and points south, including Gardez.
In a second operation a month later, U.S. Central Command, which is running the war, spotted al Qaeda members regrouping at Zhawar Kili, one of bin Laden's largest terror training camps. In that case, Gen. Tommy Franks, who heads Central Command, relied completely on air power to repeatedly attack the camp over several days. But escape routes remained open.
In Operation Anaconda, Gen. Franks came up with a tactic that seemed to correct prior failings.
In addition to using relatively large numbers of American ground troops, Central Command also recruited, equipped and trained its own local Afghan force, rather than rely on ragtag native units. Special-operations troops ran the program from a makeshift U.S. base at Khost, east of Gardez. The combined force is not only being used to attack enemy fighters but also to block their escape.
In Tora Bora, small numbers of special-operations forces were hamstrung in their ability to track and kill fleeing enemies. Some complained the rules of engagement prevented them from firing at fleeing terrorists until they got approval from higher-ups.
Mr.Rumsfeld said the enemy had leaders directing rabid counterattacks, but he did not offer the names of top al Qaeda operatives.
"There's large numbers of them," he said. "They're very well-armed. They're very well-equipped, and they're not milling around. They're engaged in a very fierce battle, so there's clearly leadership."
Asked if there were indications bin Laden might be in Shah-e-Kot, he said, "I have no current information that he's anywhere."
What pleases tacticians today is that Gen. Franks assembled a large ground assault force that can kill escaping al Qaeda members, which they point out is one of President Bush's top goals in Afghanistan.

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