- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 14, 2004

From combined dispatches

KABUL, Afghanistan — The U.S. military yesterday announced a sweeping new operation across troubled southern and eastern Afghanistan, with the aim of destroying al Qaeda and the Taliban and ultimately reeling in Osama bin Laden.

U.S. military spokesman Lt. Col. Bryan Hilferty told reporters yesterday that the offensive, called “Operation Mountain Storm,” began March 7 and involved troops from the 13,500-strong U.S.-led force backed by air support.

An Associated Press reporter at the military’s main southern base at Kandahar noted what base personnel said was heavier than usual air traffic, with C-130 cargo planes and Chinook helicopters landing through the night.

The base also served a lobster-and-steak dinner on the eve of the new operation. The army traditionally serves special meals to kick off large offensives.

The offensive comes as Americans step up their hunt for the al Qaeda leader and his top deputy, Ayman al-Zawahri, who are believed to be hiding out in the border area between Afghanistan and Pakistan.

“We believe this will help bring the heads of the terrorist organizations to justice, by continuing placing pressure on them,” Col. Hilferty said.

The operation, however, was “about more than one person,” he added.

He said American forces were confident they will eventually catch the al Qaeda leadership, as well as Taliban chief Mullah Mohammed Omar, but not necessarily during the new operation.

The Washington Times reported Feb. 23 that the Pentagon is moving elements of a supersecret commando unit from Iraq to the Afghanistan theater to step up the hunt for Osama bin Laden. Task Force 121, which was involved in the capture of Saddam Hussein in December, is a mix of Army Delta Force and Navy SEALs.

Meanwhile, the senior military commander for Afghanistan’s southern region, Gen. Haji Granai, said U.S. aircraft attacked a truck carrying 12 suspected Taliban guerrillas in the Maruf district of Kandahar province Thursday, killing all of them.

Col. Hilferty said he had no information on such an attack, though he told the briefing that U.S. forces had carried out a small-scale air assault in the south.

U.S. defense officials told Reuters in Washington on Friday that “Mountain Storm” was timed to exploit improving weather in the border region between Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Lt. Gen. David Barno, the top American commander in Afghanistan, has said his soldiers are engaged in a “hammer-and-anvil” strategy along with Pakistani forces on the other side of the border.

Some 70,000 Pakistani troops have moved into semiautonomous tribal regions to take away maneuver room for al Qaeda and Taliban fugitives believed to have taken refuge there.

A Feb. 24 operation in Wana, the main town in Pakistan’s South Waziristan region, netted 24 suspects, but none were believed to be important al Qaeda operatives.

Pakistan, a key ally in the U.S. war on terrorism, has arrested more than 500 al Qaeda suspects. But Afghans also say they have not done enough to seal the border, and complain that Taliban commanders have been organizing operations from large Pakistani border towns like Quetta and Peshawar.

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