WASHINGTON - A brutal U.S.-led battle against al-Qaida and Taliban fighters that raged on and off for two weeks in the snowy and rugged Afghan mountains south of Gardez has successfully come to a close, U.S. officials said yesterday, although they declined to say how many enemy forces had been killed.
Meanwhile, Britain announced plans to send 1,700 more troops to Afghanistan, mostly commandos specializing in cold weather and mountain warfare.
The additional troops, who will join the fight early next month, were requested by U.S. military leaders last week to help root out remaining al-Qaida and Taliban pockets throughout the country, officials said.
British Defense Secretary Geoff Hoon said his country has embarked on the largest military deployment for combat operations since the 1991 Persian Gulf war.
Analysts said that sending in the crack British troops reflects the difficult fighting around Gardez and signals the likelihood that the anti-terror campaign in Afghanistan will continue well into the summer.
"Operation Anaconda is complete," Air Force Brig. Gen. John W. Rosa Jr., deputy director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters at the Pentagon, saying U.S. and allied troops are still searching caves in the area for remaining fighters.
Victoria Clarke, the Pentagon's spokeswoman, said the operation was "executed very successfully."
Asked for an estimate of enemy dead, both declined to offer one, even though other military officials have placed the number at about 700.
"We may never know," Rosa said. "We're not counting bodies from up here." Said Clarke: "It's just not going to be very useful to put a number to it."
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld has said the purpose of the operation was to kill or capture al-Qaida forces massing in the area. Yesterday, Rosa said Anaconda - the largest ground action in six months of fighting - was important for a couple of reasons: showing the Taliban and al-Qaida "the American folks were serious" and U.S. troops were "up to the task."
Operation Anaconda involved several thousand U.S. and allied troops against a mostly al-Qaida force that initially was thought to number several hundred. Later U.S. military estimates placed the numbers at more than 1,000.
"We engaged them. We know we accomplished quite a bit," said the Air Force general. Eight Americans and five Afghan government soldiers were killed in the operation. Scores of other Americans and Afghan soldiers were wounded.
Despite the reluctance to talk about enemy dead at the Pentagon, Army Maj. Gen. Franklin L. "Buster" Hagenbeck, the U.S. commander of ground operations in Afghanistan, estimated last week that more than 700 al-Qaida fighters had been killed in the operation. Still, journalists in the area and local Afghans said they never saw bodies approaching that number.
Some Afghan officials placed the dead closer to 150 to 200, leading to speculation that once again a sizable number of enemy forces were able to slip away, as hundreds did in December during an earlier battle at Tora Bora, a mountainous area north of Gardez.
Rosa said there was no indication that "large pockets" of fighters are leaving the scene of the combat around Gardez. Clarke allowed that, with the rugged terrain and porous border with Pakistan, possibly small numbers were slipping away.
"What our military objectives were and are in Afghanistan - rooting out the al-Qaida and the Taliban - clearly we are doing that, getting them on the run, making it difficult for them to work and coordinate with one another," Clarke said.
Along those lines, U.S. forces attacked a three-car convoy south of Gardez on Sunday, killing 16 people, some of whom shot at U.S. helicopters as they fired warning shots. "So we took out those first three vehicles," Rosa said. Besides those killed, one man was wounded and another detained.
A fourth vehicle, driving a distance behind the first three cars, did not shoot at U.S. forces and stopped. The American soldiers landed and approached the vehicle as a family, including women and children, stepped from the car, officials said.
"Thank goodness ... and that shows the professionalism of those troops," Rosa said. "Those folks got back in their vehicle and went on their way."
Pentagon and government officials said the search for additional al-Qaida and Taliban forces will continue in eastern Afghanistan as well as the southern part of the country, particularly around Kandahar, the spiritual home of the Taliban movement.
On Sunday, U.S. forces raided a compound outside Kandahar, seizing weapons and ammunition as well as taking 31 people into custody, Rosa said.
Most of the 1,700 additional British troops heading to the area will be infantry, including units operating 105mm guns, and some troop-carrying helicopters.
Those forces will bring the British contingent in the region, not all in Afghanistan, to more than 6,000, about the same number as U.S. troops inside the country.
Going to war
"These troops are being deployed to Afghanistan to take part in war-fighting operations," Hoon, the defense secretary, told the House of Commons. "Their missions will be conducted in unforgiving and hostile terrain against a dangerous enemy. They may suffer casualties."
The British troops are set to arrive in Bagram, outside the capital, Kabul, in the coming days and to be ready for combat operations in mid-April.
"They're sending in a tough outfit," said Charles Heyman, a retired British infantry officer and editor of the reference work Jane's World Armies, who believes the fighting outside Gardez showed the need for seasoned reinforcements.
"A dose of reality has set in," he said. "It's going to take a long time and be real difficult."