U.S. coalition forces have come under attack in the southeastern Afghan town of Khost, less than a day after the Pentagon declared an end to an operation aimed at ridding the area of Al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters. The overnight attack was carried out by fighters with mortars, rocket-propelled grenades, and machine guns. RFE/RL correspondent Ron Synovitz reports that the clash is the latest in a series of signals that the U.S.-led coalition faces a long and difficult task before the Taliban and Al-Qaeda are eliminated from Afghanistan.
Prague, 20 March 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Taliban and Al-Qaeda fighters last night used mortars and rocket-propelled grenades to attack two bases for U.S. coalition forces near the southeastern Afghan town of Khost.
The assault comes less than 24 hours after U.S. military officials declared they had completed Operation Anaconda -- the second of two major campaigns in the area that initially were described by the Pentagon as "final mopping up" operations.
During the storming of caves at Tora Bora last December, as well as in Operation Anaconda this month in the nearby province of Paktia, U.S. officials initially claimed that thousands of Al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters had been killed. But those same officials backed away from their early proclamations of success after independent reports from the battlefield suggested that the Pentagon had exaggerated enemy casualty figures.
In recent days, the Pentagon has reduced its figures on enemy casualties during Operation Anaconda. Early claims about "thousands" of dead have been lowered to "hundreds."
Western journalists who have toured the battlefield of the Shah-e-Kot valley -- including RFE/RL's own correspondent -- say they have seen only a few dozen bodies. They have been unable to independently confirm even the more modest U.S. casualty claims.
And in Washington, it is now being reluctantly admitted by members of the Bush administration that hundreds -- possibly thousands -- of enemy fighters may have escaped across Afghanistan's southeastern mountains into neighboring Pakistan.
U.S. General Tommy Franks, commander of U.S. forces in the region, told reporters in Moscow today that there is no immediate end in sight to the wider campaign in Afghanistan.
"We don't yet know how long this operation (in Afghanistan) may take because our focus has been and will remain on locating and identifying the pockets of Al-Qaeda and other terrorist groupings inside Afghanistan. Then we will go and take those out."
Franks also downplayed the failure of the coalition so far to kill or capture Osama bin Laden, saying that the leader of the Al-Qaeda terrorist network is merely "an individual personality."
"We do not know where bin Laden is now. The forces in Afghanistan have been deployed for the purpose of destroying the terrorist network Al-Qaeda rather than for the purpose of hunting an individual personality."
In fact, U.S. President George W. Bush himself admitted this week that Operation Anaconda has failed to eliminate the Al-Qaeda and Taliban threat from Afghanistan or from the ethnic Pashtun tribal regions of northwestern Pakistan.
"I feel like we've got a lot more fighting to do in Afghanistan. First of all, we were successful in Operation Anaconda. [But] there are more Al-Qaeda killers in Afghanistan and perhaps in Pakistan [who are] willing to come back into Afghanistan."
Senior U.S. intelligence officials in Washington yesterday told the Senate Armed Services Committee that U.S. troops in Afghanistan now face an increased risk of attack by Al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters.
George Tenet, director of the Central Intelligence Agency, told the committee that the U.S.-led campaign in Afghanistan is entering a new and more difficult phase in which Taliban and Al-Qaeda fighters are likely to be grouped in smaller units that use "classic insurgency" tactics.
Tenet warned that guerrilla fighters probably are still hiding in the mountains near the Afghan-Pakistan border, as well as in some urban areas in Afghanistan. That makes Tenet one of the highest-ranking U.S. officials to confirm reports that some armed Taliban fighters appear to be lingering in Kabul and other Afghan cities.
Despite his warnings, however, Tenet told the Senate committee that the overall campaign against terrorism is proceeding well.
"The war on terrorism, Mr. Chairman, has dealt severe blows to Al-Qaeda and its leadership. The group is no longer able to run large-scale training and recruitment programs in Afghanistan. Drawing both on our own assets, the military's action, and increased cooperation from allies around the world, we are uncovering terrorist plans and breaking up their cells around the world. These efforts have yielded the arrests of over 1,300 extremists believed to be associated with Al-Qaeda operatives in over 70 countries and have disrupted terrorist operations and potential terrorist attacks."
Last night's assault on a U.S.-controlled air base near Khost and a nearby training camp for U.S. coalition forces reinforced the comments that Tenet had made just a few hours earlier.
At the Bagram air base north of Kabul today, U.S. military spokesman Major Bryan Hilferty told reporters that the assault shows that the fight against Al-Qaeda and Taliban extremists inside Afghanistan is ongoing.
"Last night, terrorists using machine guns, rocket-propelled grenades, and mortars attacked coalition forces in Khost. We returned fire and are continuing to develop the situation as we speak."
At least three Afghan fighters who had fought with U.S. troops as part of Operation Anaconda reportedly were killed in the raids and at least one U.S. soldier was wounded.
U.S. Major General Frank Hagenbeck, the commander of coalition forces in Afghanistan, warned today that Al-Qaeda and the Taliban are still trying to regroup in the eastern part of the country.
Hagenbeck says local Al-Qaeda leaders are trying to rebuild their forces in Paktia province. He also predicted that there will be more activity by Al-Qaeda in the months ahead as weather conditions improve in the mountains.
Military analysts agree last night's attack demonstrates that Al-Qaeda and the Taliban still have the resources and temerity to launch their own offensive missions against foreign troops in Afghanistan -- despite overwhelming U.S. air superiority.
In London today, opposition conservatives in the British parliament demanded a debate on the call by Prime Minister Tony Blair's administration for some 1,700 British special forces to be deployed to Afghanistan within the coming days for combat against Al-Qaeda and the Taliban.
The troops, who specialize in mountain warfare, would work directly with U.S. combat forces around Afghanistan rather than the British-led security assistance mission that is limited to peacekeeping duties in Kabul. They would be ready for combat operations by mid-April.