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Afghanistan: Visit To Shah-E-Kot Finds Few Bodies As Shell-Shocked Villagers Return

  • Askold Krushelnycky

After some two weeks of fighting in Operation Anaconda in eastern Afghanistan, U.S.-led coalition and allied Afghan forces captured a key village believed to have served as a base for Al-Qaeda terrorists. RFE/RL correspondent Askold Krushelnycky visited the village of Shah-e-Kot and filed this report.

Shah-e-Kot, Afghanistan; 15 March 2002 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. war planes continued heavy bombing today in a region of eastern Afghanistan that Washington says is being used by Al-Qaeda terrorists and ousted Taliban forces to regroup for a possible attempt to regain power.

The current fighting involves the largest number of U.S. and Afghan ground forces -- some 2,000 soldiers -- since the war began last October. U.S.-led forces launched the current attack -- codenamed Operation Anaconda -- two weeks ago after intelligence reports indicated large numbers of Al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters concentrated about 150 kilometers south of the capital, Kabul.

American forces and allied Afghan troops began the offensive in the mountains south of Gardez on 2 March. Since then, there has been fierce fighting, with American aircraft bombing suspected Al-Qaeda strongholds, and coalition soldiers and Afghan troops launching ground assaults.

The attack has cost the lives of eight U.S. soldiers and three allied Afghan fighters. A U.S. spokesman earlier this week said it is believed that some 800 enemy fighters had been killed in the offensive.

On 13 March, U.S.-led coalition and Afghan ground forces took the village of Shah-e-Kot, which had been a suspected Al-Qaeda stronghold.

The approach to the village is over desertlike plains that look upon snow-covered mountains. There are few houses. One large Afghan wattle, or traditional mud and straw house, is set in a compound surrounded by a high wall and serves as a base for a group of U.S. special forces soldiers. During a visit to the village yesterday, reporters saw some U.S. troops heading back toward Gardez in military vehicles. Seven Afghan army tanks and a column of troops were also headed north to the city.

The village of Shah-e-Kot had been home to some 300 people, all of whom fled after the attack began. Many of their homes are now destroyed, and bombs have gouged craters in the terraced fields where villagers had once grown vegetables.

But despite evidence of fierce fighting, journalists saw only three badly burned bodies, which U.S. soldiers said were Al-Qaeda fighters.

Two U.S. special forces soldiers led a group of Afghan troops as they picked their way through the rubble of houses and bunkers in a search for more bodies or any documents that could provides clues to Al-Qaeda's intentions.

The U.S. commander in the village would not give his name or allow himself to be recorded. But he told RFE/RL that the operation is continuing against the Al-Qaeda fighters, whom he said have withdrawn further into the mountains.

One of the Afghan soldiers, Shahrukh, said that apart from the three dead, they had captured two wounded Al-Qaeda fighters. The U.S. says a total of 20 Al-Qaeda fighters have been captured in the operation.

"They have gone from here completely, and they have fled to the mountains."

As he spoke, U.S. B-52 bombers flew high above, invisible to the eye but emitting a roar not only heard but also felt on the ground. Three double-rotored U.S. Chinook helicopters flew overhead toward the mountains south of the village.

American special forces and military advisers have been equipping and training Afghans to assume more of the ground fighting. Many of the Afghan troops who took part in fighting in Operation Anaconda were commanded by Haji Saifullah, who is head of the Pashtun tribal council for the province of Paktia, of which Gardez is the capital.

Saifullah is a tall, bearded man who looks much younger than his 75 years. He said around 200 of his men participated in the fighting. Saifullah says he had been allied with the Taliban during most of the time the militia was in power. He says he turned against the Taliban after he discovered the terrorist nature of the Al-Qaeda network.

Saifullah explained why he is now fighting beside coalition forces.

"We work with the Americans because these Taliban are related to the Al-Qaeda organization. Because they did not want peace and stability for Afghanistan, and the implementation of peace and stability is the plan of the international community. So we want to work with them in order to implement peace in Afghanistan."

He said he believes the presence of the U.S.-led coalition forces and of the International Security Assistance Force offers hope of peace in Afghanistan after a quarter-century of conflict.

"The most vital need for us Afghans is that the United Nations should strengthen the peacekeepers in Afghanistan. They should help us until we create a national army."

Saifullah said he does not think Al-Qaeda and Taliban soldiers who survived the fighting around Shah-e-Kot pose a future threat.

"It's not possible [for them to return] because it was a small number of rascals who came here and then some of them were killed and the others fled from here. They don't dare and are not able to attack anymore."

This view is not shared by U.S. forces, who believe a long fight lies ahead before Al-Qaeda is destroyed.

An American military adviser -- who did not want to be named -- said that fewer than 50 Al-Qaeda bodies have been discovered, compared to the hundreds of Al-Qaeda dead earlier claimed by the U.S. Major General Frank Hagenbeck, the commander of all coalition troops in Afghanistan, later told a press conference that he now thinks the number of Al-Qaeda dead is only in the "double digits."

The unnamed U.S. military adviser said some Al-Qaeda members are believed to be heading north toward Logar Province, while others are heading for Pakistan. He said he believes the fighters will rest in Pakistan and then return to Afghanistan to fight again. He said that, for the moment, Al-Qaeda holds the initiative.

Despite this assessment, villagers who fled from Shah-e-Kot were returning to their homes yesterday. In the early hours of this morning, American B-52 bombers were dropping their loads on targets south of the village, lighting up the hills and mountains with huge flashes, like a summer lightning storm.