Allies say al-Qaida and Taliban remain dangerous

Monday, April 8, 2002

BAGRAM, Afghanistan -- Six months into the war in Afghanistan, attacks on allied forces are waning and soldiers roaming the country on surveillance missions are more likely to encounter a dog fight than a firefight.

But that does not mean al-Qaida and Taliban fighters have left the country or are less dangerous than initially predicted, a U.S. military spokesman said Sunday.

Before the war began, al-Qaida was depicted by the allies as a vicious force that would fight to the death. Yet in recent missions exploring abandoned cave hide-outs -- including a five-day operation near the Pakistani border that ended Saturday -- allied soldiers found few enemy fighters.

Maj. Bryan Hilferty, an Army spokesman, said that only indicates that al-Qaida and Taliban fighters have dispersed.

"I think they're still present in the country, and we're actively looking for them. We still have intelligence that they're out there, and we're trying to get them," he said from Bagram air base north of Kabul.

Lack of enemy contact

Hilferty was not surprised by the lack of enemy contact in the last month, since the 12-day Operation Anaconda in the Shah-e-Kot mountains ended. Eight American and three pro-U.S. Afghan troops were killed in the fighting.

"I think it's more of a surprise that in Anaconda, that they all stayed. Generally what we've discovered is, if we would attack a group, the senior leaders would slink away immediately, and then middle leaders would slither away, and then junior guys would fight it out to the death.

"In Anaconda, they all stayed," he said.

Hilferty spoke a day after 500 American soldiers returned from eastern Afghanistan along the Pakistan border, where they searched abandoned al-Qaida and Taliban caves, finding secret jail cells and removing bags of documents that included dossiers with photographs and fingerprint samples.

Those soldiers did not come under enemy fire.

Hilferty declined to comment on the value of the intelligence found during the mission, part of an ongoing reconnaissance effort around the country dubbed "Operation Mountain Lion."

"It confirms that the Zawar Valley was, at one time certainly, an important place. We'll continue to focus our efforts on eastern Afghan-istan," he said.

Afghans in the area told American soldiers that hundreds of al-Qaida and Taliban fighters were just a few miles away -- across the border in Pakistan.

The issue of allied forces entering Pakistan has significant political ramifications for the government of President Pervez Musharraf because al-Qaida and the Taliban have large support in areas there.

Allied forces already said they would not cross the border. Hilferty said that was not a problem because Pakistan was pursuing the al-Qaida and Taliban fighters.

"I can only tell you the Pakistanis have been a very good partner for us," he said. "They've done everything we've asked them to do."

Some soldiers said the first six months of the war showed that neither side was described accurately in the beginning.

"A lot of people said we were getting in over our heads with the winter and the mountains, but it's actually just like training. I've been surprised it's been so easy," said Lt. Ryan Taylor, a mortar platoon leader in the 101st Airborne Division.

"We also learned a lot from Operation Anaconda. We realized they're not the invincible warriors people were saying they were."

Taylor, 24, of Westchester, Pa., said he expected the fighting to pick up after six months of intelligence gathering.

"Now we know where the enemy is."

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