The top commander of American forces fighting in Afghanistan announced today that the U.S.-led coalition offensive of the last two weeks against Al-Qaeda forces -- codenamed Operation Anaconda -- is over. General Tommy Franks came to the main U.S. military base in the country to present medals for courage to five soldiers. RFE/RL correspondent Askold Krushelnycky was at the U.S. base in Bagram and sent this report.
Bagram, Afghanistan; 18 March 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, General Tommy Franks, says that Operation Anaconda, the massive offensive by U.S. and coalition forces to hunt down Al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters, will end later today.
Franks, who is chief of the U.S. military's Central Command, today visited the main U.S. base in Afghanistan at Bagram, north of the capital, Kabul, to present medals for courage to four soldiers who took part in Operation Anaconda.
Franks said at the ceremony that Operation Anaconda "will finish in 12 hours' time," or early this evening Prague time.
Operation Anaconda was launched at the beginning of March in an attempt to destroy a large concentration of Al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters discovered in mountainous territory near the city of Gardez, around 150 kilometers south of Kabul. It was the coalition's largest ground operation so far in Afghanistan, involving up to 2,000 American soldiers, 500 Canadians, and hundreds of Afghan fighters. Norwegian soldiers also took part, as did special forces from Britain, Australia, and New Zealand.
Franks said Operation Anaconda had fulfilled all the expectations of its planners, who had wanted to deal a severe blow to the Al-Qaeda organization.
"This operation was an unqualified and absolute success from the perspective not only of the coalition forces involved but also from the view of the Afghan forces."
Some Afghan commanders have spoken openly and some in the American military have said privately that very few dead Al-Qaeda fighters have been found in the Shah-e-Kot area, where the heaviest fighting of Operation Anaconda took place. Many of them say they believe the majority of the Al-Qaeda forces who had been the target of Operation Anaconda escaped.
But Franks said the U.S. military had never given precise estimates of how many Al-Qaeda fighters had been killed, except to say the figure was in the hundreds.
"I won't talk to you about numbers of casualties. I won't talk to you about body count. But I will say that the area around Shah-e-Kot is a completely different area than it was two weeks ago."
However, he said he does not believe large numbers of the Al-Qaeda fighters encircled during Operation Anaconda had escaped. He also said the war against Al-Qaeda will continue and that there will be other large operations mounted. Franks said it is possible Al-Qaeda fighters will adopt guerrilla hit-and-run tactics, which could lead to a prolonged American presence in Afghanistan.
"I think that as long as the threat remains in Afghanistan, we will face the possibility of hit-and-run raids by enemy forces here. I would not discount the possibility of that at all. At the same time, I would say that we are an adaptive force, as well. Each day that we conduct this, we get a little bit better. We learn from what we do on each occasion. So what we'll do is, we'll continue to hunt the members of these cells that remain in Afghanistan."
Franks said he does not know where Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden is. Bin Laden is the man blamed for organizing the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington. Franks also said it is difficult to locate the "hardcore" Al-Qaeda fighters and where their supporters are, and that it is therefore difficult to estimate the total number of committed enemy.
But he said it is possible that more large groups of Al-Qaeda fighters like those in Shah-e-Kot could appear and will have to be dealt with.
"Yes, I believe it is possible for fighters to regroup in various places inside Afghanistan. I think we've been careful to say that this is not over. This operation in the vicinity of Shah-e-Kot, as I mentioned earlier, is getting close to being over because we are in fact completing the exploitation (search) of that area. But one should suspect that these operations are going to continue. Yes, there is a possibility for enemy forces to maybe regroup or perhaps enemy forces which we have not yet identified the location of to be involved with us in a fight as we continue."
Five U.S. soldiers were awarded the Bronze Star medal -- three for valor and two for exceptionally good performance on the battlefield during Operation Anaconda.
The ceremony was carried out in a huge aircraft hangar at the Bagram base, which was used by Soviet forces during their occupation of Afghanistan. Hundreds of U.S. soldiers watched their comrades receive the honors. As they waited, loudspeakers played a mixture of rock music and excerpts from the speeches of U.S. President George W. Bush and other politicians about the 11 September terrorist attacks.
Franks praised those receiving the medals and said all the soldiers serving in Afghanistan are heroes.
"What a proud day for me -- to honor these heroes and to honor you. As the president of the United States said very early in this, it's going to be the responsibility of our men and women in uniform to do the work. The generals will do what the generals do, to be sure. But where it counts is where you are. What counts is who you are."
Franks said Operation Anaconda will finish later today because the troops have done their work well.
"This is about Operation Anaconda which, within 12 hours, will be completed. It'll be completed because you did it. You did it on time. You did it with a good plan. You did it with violent execution. You did it taking care of one another. You did it taking care of business. And the only thing I guess I can leave you with is you are much appreciated. You're, in fact, treasured. I love all of you. God bless you and God bless this work. Thanks a lot. (Cheers)"
A Bronze Star was awarded posthumously to the family of a U.S. soldier who died earlier in the operation when he fell out of a helicopter and was captured and executed by Al-Qaeda fighters.