US ends Shahikot operation: Franks unaware of rebels' hiding places

Safiullah Gul reports from Pakistan

The Pentagon claims about the successful completion of the 16-day offensive “Anaconda” in the Shahikot Valley - the scene of the latest fighting - near Paktia's capital city of Gardez in the eastern Afghanistan to flush out the Taliban and al-Qaeda remnants are being made at a time when many details have yet to come out about the whole operation. Many believe there are more questions than answers to the whole episode.

The offensive in the Shahikot mountains, according to US officials, has left at least 500 rebels dead. The Americans have also claimed capturing a number of the fighters.

However, independent Afghan sources and some of commanders allied with the US troops have questioned the authenticity of the American assertions. Local commanders believe that most of the Taliban and al-Qaeda combatants, who were earlier reported besieged, managed to sneak out of the valley.

Journalists visiting the mountainous area of Shahi Kot have found little evidence of damage to the Taliban and al-Qaeda remnants. Only a few dead bodies and a few caves with leftover belongings of suspected Taliban. So what was all the heavy aerial bombing and intense ground attacks meant for?

Reports suggest that planning for the operation began in early February after intelligence information indicated a large number of suspected al-Qaeda and Taliban had massed in the mountainous area of Paktia province. The plan was that troops from Australia, Canada, Denmark, France, Germany and Norway would block all escape routes.

The operation kicked off on March 2 to clear al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters from the Shahi Kot valley. The heaviest American casualties occurred two days later, when US lost some nine troops in the fight.

The US forces claim to have over-run al-Qaeda and Taliban positions last week, but some of the Afghan commanders fighting alongside the Americans believe most of the fighters managed to escape.

Other reports suggest that the US troops and the Afghan allies never managed to dent the remnants in the Shahi Kot mountains.

The Shahi Kot episode has once again raised questions about the kind of intelligence the US is relying on for its military operations in Afghanistan.

American commanders in their initial statements said they were attacking an estimated 150 to 200 trapped al-Qaeda fighters. Days later, other military officials were claiming 500 to 800 of the suspected Taliban had been killed. The figures have always remained bewildered.

One reason given for this mismatch in numbers is that the US Afghan allies on the ground may not have this time misinformed them, leading to bombing of friendly forces and civilians. But they have attempted to negotiate with the enemy, preferring to let them go to fight another day.

Local sympathies are reported to be with the Taliban and the holed up families.

But bad weather and a setback to Afghan allies on the first day of Operation Anaconda meant things did not go according to plan, US and Afghan officials involved in the battle said.

That may have allowed some or perhaps hundreds of the fighters to escape.

Since there are no reports as yet of any of the suspected Taliban crossing over into Pakistan, as was the case in Tora Bora, it is believed they must have moved to another place inside Afghanistan.

This shows that the war in Afghanistan is far from over for the American-led coalition forces. They are up against people who have 20 years of experience in fighting in the difficult mountainous terrain.

Meanwhile, the commander of the US forces, General Tommy Franks, hailed the operation as "an unqualified and absolute success," yet he admitted in the same breath the allied troops had no idea where the top rebels were hiding.

At the news conference in Bagram, Gen. Franks avoided speculating on the casualties suffered by the enemy troops in the operation. He hinted at his forces launching more such operations to clear al-Qaeda and Taliban pockets of resistance.

Following the announcement about the operation's conclusion, General Franks said that the fighters belonging to the vanquished militia and the Osama-led organisation continued to pose a major threat, adding that they might regroup in remote parts of the conflict-wrecked country. "And that is why we are not saying that this (operation) is over. I think that such an operation could happen again."

Safiullah Gul PRAVDA.RU

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