Afghan commanders question Operation Anaconda's success

Sunday, March 17, 2002

GARDEZ, Afghanistan -- To some veteran Afghan commanders, the recent U.S. offensive against al-Qaida fighters in eastern Afghanistan failed because most of them got away.

Moreover, they say, this month's Operation Anaconda, the biggest U.S.-led offensive of the Afghan war, should serve as a warning of what lies ahead if the United States wants to crush al-Qaida and Taliban forces still in Afghanistan.

According to the Afghans, themselves veterans of the brutal 1980s war against the Soviets, the Americans must be prepared for a protracted series of battles, in which an elusive opponent seemingly suffers a terrible pounding, only to disappear into the formidable terrain -- perhaps to return and fight another day.

"There will only be a guerrilla war with al-Qaida," said Commander Abdullah, a leading Afghan military figure here in Paktia province. "They know how to fight from the jihad against the Soviets in small groups in the mountains."

The U.S. military has declared Operation Anaconda, which began winding down last week, a success. The U.S.-led coalition seized control of the Shah-e-Kot valley after nearly two weeks of punishing airstrikes and ground combat -- losing eight American and three Afghan troops.

"Operation Anaconda ... is an incredible success," said Maj. Bryan Hilferty, spokesman of the 10th Mountain Division. "It took only 20 terrorists to kill 3,000 of the world's citizens in the World Trade Towers. We've killed hundreds and that means we've saved hundreds of thousands of lives. This is a great success."

'Americans don't listen'

However, Afghan commanders here question that assessment -- as well as the estimate of hundreds of al-Qaida and Taliban casualties.

"Americans don't listen to anyone," said Commander Abdul Wali Zardran. "They do what they want. Most people escaped. You can't call that a success."

U.S. officers have publicly downplayed the significance of body counts, perhaps trying to avoid a repetition of the Vietnam experience where ground commanders felt pressured to report elevated enemy casualties.

"I don't know why we get into a body count," said Col. Frank Wiercinski, brigade commander of the 101st Airborne Division, dismissing questions about the numbers of al-Qaida and Taliban dead.

Apart from killing al-Qaida members, the operation was successful because it broke up a major concentration in a strategic area and yielded valuable information on the terrorist network, U.S. officials say.

To the Afghans, however, killing or capturing the enemy is the whole purpose of guerrilla warfare and the principal measure of success. Otherwise, they say, the opponent will fight again somewhere, someday.

"In my opinion, the campaign failed," Abdullah said. "There were some forces there but during the very heavy bombardment and air strikes they left.

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