WASHINGTON -- If U.S.-led troops kill every last al-Qaida holed up in the Shah-e-Kot valley, their job in Afghanistan will still be far from finished.
The week-old assault there by American and coalition warplanes and more than 2,200 troops is the biggest ground battle in the 5-month-old war. But enemy fighters are hiding in other parts of the country.
"We've got a lot of cleaning up to do," Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said Friday.
Though former Taliban rulers fled their last stronghold in Kandahar in December -- and al-Qaida terrorists fled theirs in Tora Bora shortly after -- the Department of Defense has been saying ever since that the enemy remained in varying sized "pockets of resistance" elsewhere.
This week's fierce ground assault south of the town of Gardez was meant to crush a number of pockets that reconnaissance units had been watching for weeks in a 60-square mile area in the country's eastern mountains.
With more troops on the way, some 2,200 soldiers from a half dozen nations combined for Operation Anaconda, named for the snake that kills by squeezing its prey in its coils. Some U.S.-led coalition troops are fighting small groups of enemy fighters with the help of bombing, while other coalition members have formed an ever-tightening circle around the perimeter in hopes of killing anyone who flees.
The assault was against an estimated 1,000 Taliban, al-Qaida and members of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, with only a couple hundred still left Friday, said Brig. Gen. John W. Rosa Jr., deputy operations director for the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
One intelligence official said it may be the last big enemy gathering, in terms of the numbers of fighters, their ability to destabilize the new Afghan government, the extent to which they are organized and their fighting capability.
But a number of smaller pockets remain to be cleared, the official said, declining to estimate the number of such gatherings or their size.
The war's commander, Gen. Tommy Franks, has laid out a similar future for the coalition in Afghanistan.
He said this week that troops will press ahead with Anaconda "until we accomplish ... the destruction of the forces inside this pocket. And then we'll continue our operations in Afghanistan."