HUNDREDS of American troops were pulled out of the ground battle with al-Qaeda forces because they failed to adapt to the guerrilla tactics required for fighting in the mountains, according to their Afghan allies.
More than 1,000 Afghan troops rushed to the front line yesterday to take up the slack after the withdrawal of 400 US troops from the mountains of eastern Afghanistan.
The American military has described the withdrawal as a tactical reappraisal of their battleplan, but Afghan commanders told a different story of inexperienced American soldiers unable to advance through the unfamiliar mountains to track down al-Qaeda and Taleban foes.
“They were not trained for the kind of fighting we do in the mountains and, in these conditions, their kind of fighting is useless,” Commander Allah Mohammed said. “They were weakening our morale, it was better for them to go.”
As dawn broke, hundreds of Afghan fighters mounted their creaking Soviet-era tanks and set off towards the snow-covered ridge of Shahi-Kot, where the remaining al-Qaeda forces are hiding. Belching black smoke, the tanks chugged their way to a mud-walled fort, where troops were assembling around their leader, the Tajik commander, Gul Haider.
The last time that these forces met the Taleban was on the northern Shomali Plain, from where they swept into Kabul as the Taleban fled south. It is hoped their familiarity with the Taleban’s tactics will help them to succeed where American troops failed.
Shah Mahood Popal, their deputy commander, believed it was self-preservation that stopped the Americans from launching a more decisive attack. “They didn’t want to risk losing lots of fighters. Afghans don’t care if they lose lots of fighters, so we are better suited for the task. They should stick to bombing,” he said.
As he finished, the dark shape of a warplane swept the blue sky above and a loud boom ricocheted off the mountains. Three puffs of black smoke rose up from the snowy ridge. “They are still trying to wipe out the al-Qaeda from the air,” Habib Afghan, a commander said, “but if forces don’t go in, it is impossible to finish them off.”
The new troops were dispatched from Kabul last week after it became clear that the Americans had underestimated the number of militants still left hiding up in the mountains. Afghan commanders believe that the US has exaggerated the number of casualties in the bombing campaign, saying that at least several hundred al-Qaeda forces are up in mountain caves ready to fight back.
“We have been very close to their positions and we have seen no dead bodies,” Commander Mohammed said.
Afghan leaders say the many pathways through the mountains are providing not only escape routes for the fighters but a means of replenishing their ranks.
Shahi-Kot has been called the last bastion of al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, but there is evidence that other pockets of resistance still exist in provinces to the south. Commanders say that before Operation Anaconda began, there had been only a small number of al-Qaeda in the mountains.
They were attempting to negotiate a surrender when the offensive began, bringing al-Qaeda forces from all over the south running to Shahi Kot to help in the battle. “We were communicating with them, but the Americans would not allow us to negotiate,” Commander Mohammed said. “This paved the way for the other Arabs to join them.”
The Arabs are thought to have made their way here from a number of locations in southern Pakistan and Afghanistan, in particular, a secret Taleban base in Zabul Province, north of Kandahar.
Former Taleban sources predict that the base could be the scene of the next operation against al-Qaeda. “This battle will not be the last,” one former official said. “The network is far from dead.”
Copyright 2002 Times Newspapers Ltd