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Afghanistan: Britain Leads Latest Mission To Hunt Down Al-Qaeda, Taliban

A force of some 1,000 mostly British and U.S. soldiers has been deployed to the mountainous tribal area along Afghanistan's border with Pakistan in an operation aimed at hunting down Al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters. RFE/RL correspondent Ron Synovitz reports on the early stages of Operation Snipe.

Prague, 2 May 2002 (RFE/RL) -- A British commander in Afghanistan says some 1,000 soldiers from the international antiterrorism coalition began a new operation this week against Taliban and Al-Qaeda fighters near Afghanistan's southeastern border with Pakistan.

The mission, which has been codenamed Operation Snipe, is the first major ground assault in Afghanistan to be led by British forces.

The majority of the foreign troops involved are British. But the operation also includes hundreds of U.S. special forces and infantry, as well as troops from Canada, Australia, and other countries contributing to the international antiterrorism campaign. Afghan troops also are providing support.

Operation Snipe formally began on 29 April, when advance deployments of British Royal Marines were sent by helicopter to the mountain peaks overlooking the Afghan-Pakistan border. From those positions, the British troops hope to be able to call in airstrikes against any Taliban or Al-Qaeda fighters who attempt to slip across the border into Pakistan.

British commander Brigadier Roger Lane revealed the first official details about the operation during a press conference today at Bagram air base north of Kabul.

"Elements of [our] task force -- supported by coalition air and aviation assets and Afghan ground forces -- are now deployed into the mountains of southeast Afghanistan for what is called Operation Snipe."

Lane confirmed that the operation includes Royal Marines from British Commando 45 -- a special force trained specifically for mountain combat that was deployed to Afghanistan about a month ago. Lane said it also includes other British support troops.

"All four companies of 45 commando are in and ready for action. Our artillery, engineers, logisticians, and other brigade enablers are fully worked up. And our five Chinook helicopters are all set to go."

Lane said the goal of the operation is to eliminate any Taliban or Al-Qaeda fighters who may still be hiding in Afghanistan, or who might try to slip back and forth across the border with Pakistan.

"A potent force of around 1,000 strong -- and equipped with a full range of combat power at my disposal -- has been deployed by air and by land to first secure, and then search, a large and challenging area in what is a strategic key location for our enemy."

Authorities in Islamabad deny recent reports that some of the foreign troops have been deployed within Pakistan.

The area where Operation Snipe is being conducted is adjacent to where two earlier U.S-led military campaigns have been fought -- Operation Anaconda and the battle at Tora Bora.

During both of those operations, U.S. forces received information about a large number of mobilized Al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters. But in both cases, the number of fighters who were killed or captured turned out to be far less than the number originally thought to be in the area.

That has led U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld to say there are still Al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters slipping back and forth across the border.

The area on the Pakistan side of the border is often listed on maps as "tribal regions" because the Pashtun tribes that live there have never been dominated by outsiders -- whether from the government in Islamabad or British colonial solders in the last three centuries.

There are suggestions in Washington that both the Taliban and Al-Qaeda may be receiving help from some sympathetic Pashtun tribal leaders in that part of Pakistan.

Afghanistan's local rivalries also are complicating the situation. Most of the Western ground forces involved in Operation Snipe are now concentrated in the Afghan town of Khost about 30 kilometers from the border.

That area is dominated by Afghan troops who are loyal to Padshah Khan Zadran -- the ousted governor of neighboring Paktia Province, who once was considered the main U.S. ally there.

Thus, the multinational force at Khost is in a situation in which it needs the cooperation of a local warlord who has been condemned by Afghanistan's interim government for recently launching hundreds of rockets at civilians in neighboring Paktia Province.

On 30 April, Afghan interim leader Hamid Karzai accused Zadran's forces of committing "murder" by launching the attack on Paktia's capital of Gardez.

Karzai said he has seen enough of warlordism in the area and that he has decided to rid Afghanistan of such problems. He said he has asked for help from both U.S. troops and Afghan fighters from Jamiat-i-Islami -- a Panshiri political faction of the Afghan interim government that fought against the Taliban as part of the former Northern Alliance.

"[On Monday night], I talked to the U.S. government and told them their forces are here to help us in fighting the warlords. Yesterday, I told the [Afghan] minister of defense and minister of interior to get prepared. And I will talk to local elders in order to end these kinds of events. I would use any means to ensure that the Afghan nation will not be sacrificed and killed by such brutal people (warlords)."

The current governor of Paktia, Taj Mohammad Wardak, has threatened to launch military action against Zadran's troops in Paktia and Khost unless Zadran comes to terms by the end of next week.

The threats by Karzai and Wardak have raised concerns about a complex situation -- one in which British and U.S. troops may be engaged in combat against Taliban and Al-Qaeda fighters while a major dispute between rival Afghan factions is under way in the same area.

For its part, the U.S. Pentagon has said it will not get involved in combat against either side in Afghan clan disputes.