U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan on 18 March concluded their largest ground offensive since the campaign against Afghan-based terrorist elements was launched in October. The offensive, Operation Anaconda, was aimed at flushing remaining Taliban and Al-Qaeda fighters from Afghanistan's eastern mountains on the border with Pakistan. The U.S. has pronounced the operation a success but admits pockets of resistance remain in Afghanistan and that fighting is likely to continue for some time. RFE/RL correspondent Askold Krushelnycky went to Bagram air base north of Kabul to talk to some of the soldiers who took part in Anaconda.
Bagram Air Base, Afghanistan; 20 March 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The sprawling Bagram air base, located about 30 kilometers north of the Afghan capital, Kabul, was the largest Soviet military airport during Moscow's occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s.
Now it is the largest U.S. military base in the country, and the site from which coalition forces on 2 March launched Operation Anaconda, a 17-day offensive aimed at eradicating a Taliban and Al-Qaeda stronghold in the mountains of eastern Afghanistan.
The offensive involved some 2,000 coalition troops, including Americans, Canadians, Norwegians, and Afghan allied forces. Eight Americans and three Afghans lost their lives in the fighting. But the commander of the coalition forces, Major General Frank Hagenbeck, said yesterday that the offensive succeeded in killing hundreds of Al-Qaeda's most experienced fighters and trainers. General Tommy Franks, the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, pronounced Operation Anaconda "an unqualified and absolute success."
Most of the U.S. soldiers who participated in Anaconda were from the 10th Mountain light infantry division, based at Fort Drum in New York state. They are trained to fight in rugged, mountainous terrain much like that found in eastern Afghanistan.
Our correspondent visited the Bagram base and spoke with many of the coalition soldiers who took part in Anaconda. For most of them, it was the first time they had seen combat.
Private Richard Shriver arrived in Afghanistan just a few days before going into battle. He and his fellow soldiers had trained in Kuwait for five months before coming to Afghanistan and were not sure how long they could expect to stay. Asked whether there was a desire among the troops to avenge the 11 September terrorist attacks on the U.S., Shriver gave an unequivocal "yes."
"There is, big time [definitely]. These guys did a very wrong thing, and I have no remorse for any of these [Taliban or Al-Qaeda] people [killed in Operation Anaconda]. I'm not going to take any prisoners, none whatsoever. They had their chance, and it's too late now," Shriver said.
Major Selwyn Jamison is a U.S. Army pilot who commands six of the Chinook helicopters that delivered soldiers to the battle zone. He said there is a strong current of patriotism and personal grief motivating the U.S. troops in Afghanistan: "Ever since 11 September, everyone in my unit -- and I think I can speak for most individuals in the army -- have wanted to come over here and give a little payback for what happened to our country. And it's very satisfying and gratifying to come over and be able to deal out a little of the same of what we got. I don't think we can ever pay [them] back for what happened [to us on] 11 September, but I think this is a good start."
U.S. Lieutenant Greg Darling led a group of about 30 soldiers who were among several platoons dropped along a five-kilometer-long ridge line known as "The Whaleback" to block any Taliban or Al-Qaeda fighters attempting to escape. Darling described how his men attacked an Al- Qaeda fortification identified by a Canadian reconnaissance team: "The [Al-Qaeda fighters] had a vantage point from one hilltop, and the actual objective was the hilltop itself. So I pulled two of my AT-4s -- that's an anti-tank weapon -- over to the vantage point, and I pulled my guns over there and we initiated fire onto the objective for probably a good minute. And then I brought my other two squads around to the side, and we had these guys cease fire. And as we came up, we threw a frag [fragmentation grenade] into the first opening we came to, and my first squad went up and encountered one enemy [fighter]."
Darling said they found the position had been manned by two men. One fighter had been killed, but the other was still standing: "He was actually the only one we found living. He was pretty shell-shocked from being hit by two anti-tank weapons, so they took him down [killed him]."
Darling said he did not determine if the fighter had wanted to surrender: "We didn't give him a chance. That's our rules of engagement. We were told everyone on the Whaleback was hostile."
Close to 500 Canadian troops from the Princess Patricia light infantry battalion took part in Anaconda. One soldier, Corporal Landon Perry, described his feelings as he was shuttled by helicopter into the combat zone. "It was a little unnerving," he said. "But once you hit the ground and see the number of troops out there and the massive air support, your confidence builds pretty quickly, and you feel fairly secure in what you're doing."
Much of Operation Anaconda consisted of so-called "mopping up" operations to clear out remaining pockets of Taliban and Al-Qaeda fighters after days of heavy bombing runs. Many Al-Qaeda and Taliban forces were dug into caves and man-made bunkers in the foothills and mountains of the Shah-e-Kot valley south of the city of Gardez.
Canadian Private Shane Schofield was among the soldiers dropped along the Whaleback ridge. Schofield described the task of his unit: "Our mission was to clear caves and ravines and things like that, which is what we did. We [walked] up and down the mountains. [With] any potential caves or what we thought were potential enemy locations, we physically cleared them to make sure they were clear and conducted a few patrols and things like that through the mountains."
Canadian Corporal Rye Bowerman, now in his seventh year in the army, said it was the first time in 50 years the Canadian military had seen combat. But he said his country's peacekeeping duties in places like Bosnia have given Canadian soldiers ample war-zone experience.
Bowerman also said that U.S. and Canadian forces are working well together: "The American military's support network -- like for their helicopters -- is outstanding, and the cooperation has been excellent."
Another Canadian soldier, Dan Holly, dismissed the idea that Canadian troops feel as though they are fighting someone else's war: "I'd say the attack on the [United] States was an attack on Canada, as well. There were Canadians who died in the attacks. There were Canadians on the [hijacked] flights. An attack on the free world is an attack on peace, so our motivation is fairly similar to the Americans'."
Despite the declared success of the Anaconda operation, the fighting appears far from over in Afghanistan. Coalition forces commander Hagenbeck said yesterday that thousands of Al-Qaeda and Taliban forces remain in the country. He described them as prepared, well funded, and well equipped.
Today, Al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters attacked U.S. camps in the eastern Khost region, using machine guns, rocket-propelled grenades, and mortars. A U.S. military spokesman said U.S. and allied Afghan troops returned fire in an exchange that lasted several hours. No casualties were reported.