Allied troops shifting to Afghanistan's east

Efforts to remove al-Qaida, Taliban on Pakistan border renewed

May 02, 2002|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Hundreds of U.S. and allied troops moved into position early today in eastern Afghanistan, along the border with Pakistan, in a renewed effort to flush out al-Qaida and Taliban fighters, defense officials said.

The force, numbering fewer than 1,000, isdrawn mainly from British Royal Marines and Canadian infantry inside Afghanistan, along with about 150 American troops from units of the 101st Airborne Division, based at the airport in the southern city of Kandahar, officials said.

Meanwhile, Army Apache attack helicopters have been moved from Bagram Air Base outside of the capital city, Kabul, to the eastern city of Khowst in anticipation of the operation, officials said.

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld deflected questions at a Pentagon briefing about the increase in troop strength along the rugged border region, where there have been several skirmishes recently with enemy forces.

"We don't talk about operations or activities," he said. But Rumsfeld said troops from the United States and other countries are "in a variety of operations," including sweeps through the country, trying to ensure that neither al-Qaida nor Taliban fighters reassemble or threaten the security of the interim government.

"The situation in Afghanistan is far from over," Rumsfeld said. "It is a situation where we know there are al-Qaida and Taliban who in some instances have not left the country and in some instances if they've left the country, they haven't left very far," a reference to the country's porous border with Pakistan.

At the briefing, Marine Gen. Peter Pace, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said, "The coalition forces are continuing their search operations, and it is still dangerous."

One military officer said the operation will involve surveillance and reconnaissance aimed at flushing out small groups of al-Qaida fighters.

It is not expected to be comparable to Operation Anaconda, a grueling, high-altitude battle that took place in eastern Afghanistan over two weeks in March. During that operation, several thousand U.S. and allied troops faced more than 1,000 al-Qaida fighters.

The Pentagon said hundreds of al-Qaida fighters died in that fight, although some reports from the region questioned the numbers because few bodies were seen. Some al-Qaida slipped across the border into Pakistan or melted into the local population.

"They'll go up and see what they find," said one officer. Asked whether any battles are expected, the officer said, "It depends if we find a lot of bad guys." Al-Qaida and Taliban strength in the area of eastern Afghanistan and the border regions of Pakistan is estimated to number in the hundreds, Pentagon officials said.

But coalition forces have spotted only small groups of al-Qaida and Taliban forces, which apparently learned from Anaconda not to band together in large numbers, officials said.

The mission, officials said, is likely to be more akin to last month's Operation Ptarmigan -- named after a Scottish mountain bird -- which was spearheaded by British Royal Marines, who scoured the 10,000-foot mountains near the Shah-e-Kot Valley where the Anaconda operation took place.

The troops met no resistance during the five-day action but found ammunition, communications equipment and documents in abandoned caves and bunkers.

An Army officer in the Pentagon said the massing of troops has the earmarks of a classic "hammer-and-anvil" strategy, which would trap any al-Qaida fighters between coalition forces and Pakistani soldiers along that country's borders. Tens of thousands of Pakistani troops have been deployed along the border with Afghanistan to try to intercept Taliban or al-Qaida fighters.

"It sounds to me like we're in the rat hunt stage," said the officer.

Pentagon officials said American soldiers and U.S. intelligence operatives recently started working for the first time with the Pakistanis in the remote border areas of the northwest, helping collect information on al-Qaida and Taliban members thought to be regrouping there or seeking a safe haven.

A Pentagon official cautioned that U.S. troops have yet to take part in raids inside Pakistan. "Is there planning going on? Yes," said the official. "Do we have boots on the ground? No.

U.S. Green Berets and other commando-type operators would take part in a military campaign "when the need arises," the official said.

A Pakistani official said that should U.S. soldiers enter the tribal areas, they would have to be accompanied by Pakistani troops, who also must gain permission from tribal elders before entering.

"Even when we have to send the Pakistani army in there we have to negotiate," said the official, who requested anonymity. "An outsider is immediately known. [Tribal elders] can even tell when a stray animal is from a different tribe."

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