Despite making tall claims about wiping out Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters in the Shahi Kot mountains, reports from the area reveal a very different picture. Figures given out by the US for its latest operation, codenamed Operation Anaconda, after the snake that squeezes its prey to death, mention an estimated 1,000 Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters surrounded in the mountains, and an American noose tightening around them. After claiming to have killed nearly 800 at the cost of only eight Americans killed and 50 wounded, the US suddenly withdrew its forces, proclaiming the operation an “unqualified and absolute success,” in the words of General Tommy Franks, head of the US Central Command. If so, why did they not go on, wondered many observers.
Many will recall similar US claims in the Vietnam war. In January 1968 some 80,000 Vietcong guerrillas launched the Tet offensive against Saigon (then South Vietnam’s capital). Even after claims by the Americans to have killed 20,000 Vietcong, the offensive continued. It was the late Robert Kennedy who pointed out that in general for every soldier killed four are wounded; if 20,000 Vietcong had been killed the other 60,000 must be wounded. Kennedy then asked rhetorically: “Who is doing the fighting?”
A similar question is being asked about America’s war in Afghanistan. By December the US claimed to have wiped out the Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters, and predicted that there would soon be peace and security in the country. Operation Anaconda was supposed to be the battle that would eliminate the last pockets of resistance by determined fighters opposing US attacks on and occupation of Afghanistan. The outcome has been less than satisfactory for the Americans. Their Afghan allies reported discovering only 20 bodies of Taliban or al-Qaeda fighters in the Shahi Kot caves, and 10 were captured but turned out to be local farmers. US bombardment of the area was intense and three villages were completely wiped out, but their inhabitants were what the US calls “collateral damage”, so their numbers remain unknown.
What happened to the other 970 fighters, if there had indeed been 1,000 in the Shahi Kot mountains before the fighting? There were nowhere near so many; the US habitually exaggerates the strength of its opponents so that its own soldiers can look better. Reports from Afghan sources in the area suggest that there were probably between 200 and 300 fighters there. Again, the questions are what happened to the other 270? and why did Operation Anaconda end so abruptly?
An interesting answer has been offered by General Hamid Gul, retired Pakistani intelligence chief, who in an interview with United Press International (March 13) said that the Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters took a number of American soldiers prisoner. US officials have denied this claim, but that is nothing new. News from Afghanistan is so tightly controlled that American journalists have become Pentagon cheerleaders.
According to General Gul, the US sent “some Americans to Shahi Kot, dressed as Afghans” who spoke Pushto; some even had beards. “The idea was to slip through the Taliban defences into the al-Qaeda hideouts in the mountains. But they were detected and captured.”
The general said that this forced the Americans to make a deal with al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters and withdraw their troops. “The withdrawal of US troops allowed most of the Taliban and Al-Qaeda fighters to escape and melt away among the Pashtun tribesmen living in the area.” It is worth remembering that , as ISI chief, General Gul was closely involved in the Afghan jihad for more than ten years. After his retirement he maintained close links with the Taliban, so he has detailed knowledge of the Afghan situation. “I wonder what the Americans were trying to achieve with this Hollywood-style operation,” he said; “Afghanistan is not Hollywood. It is a traditional tribal society where even a dog from another tribe is noticed by everyone.”
Victoria Clarke, spokeswoman for the Pentagon, has denied that there are any US prisoners, but Nawa-e Waqt, an Urdu daily in Lahore, has given the number of American soldiers captured as 18, including two officers, who were seen by a television cameraman as well. They are being kept in pairs in different places to prevent their rescue by a sudden US attack. The US has given no explanation for its operation ending so abruptly, nor said what happened to the remaining fighters, although there is little doubt that most of them have managed to slip out of the Shahi Kot mountains (the interesting question about that is how). During an interview at Bagram air base on March 20, major general Franklin L Hagenbeck, commander of US forces in Afghanistan, admitted indirectly that Taliban/al-Qaeda fighters had escaped when he said that US forces might cross the border into Pakistan to pursue them.
The US war in Afghanistan is fast turning into another Vietnam-type quagmire. This has prompted Richard Holbrooke, former US ambassador to the UN, to express the fear in an interview in the New York Times (March 24) that Afghanistan “is in extreme danger of falling back into the hands of warlords and drug lords and terrorists. And if this happens, Afghanistan will once again become a sanctuary for attacks against the United States.” Presumably Holbrooke has failed to notice that Afghanistan is already in the grip of warlords; the main difference is that many of them are working for the US.
How long this will last, and how long ordinary Afghans will continue to bear the steel and fire being rained down upon them by “friendly” Americans, is another matter. Even in Kabul, a ‘friendly’ basketball game between American and Afghan teams turned ugly on March 20. One American player was kicked in the head, and an Afghan spectator was shot in the leg. Kabul is supposed to have been ‘pacified’ by the Northern Alliance and foreign “peacekeeping” troops, yet the people clearly feel anything but pacific.
Other changes in US behaviour also point to some kind of secret deal. For instance, after breathing fire for months, the Americans have now announced that only “some” of the prisoners held at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba will be tried by military tribunals, and they can hire their own civilian lawyers. While this is still in violation of all international law, the signals being sent out by the US are much more sober. Those holding American prisoners have said that they will not be released until the Guantanamo Bay prisoners are released unconditionally. The US is not likely to agree to such a deal yet, but if fighting in Afghanistan gets worse, as there are indications that it will when the weather improves, there will be more American casualties: the dreaded bodybags will become a reality. The increased flow of such gifts to the US is likely to have a sobering effect on the American public, pumped into a mood of triumphalist over-optimism.
The hawks in the Pentagon have been saying for months that the ‘war against terrorism’ is far from over. This is not what they had in mind, but Americans may finally start to believe them.