The Unfinished War

At the tail end of operation Anaconda, some American victories were a bit Pyrrhic. One platoon from the U.S. Army's 10th Mountain Division was mopping up Al Qaeda positions along a ridgeline dubbed the Whale last week when they came across a fortified bunker. They blasted the structure with antitank rockets and M-16s. They plunked grenades down "spider holes," man-size pits guarding the entrance. Manning the point, Sgt. John Wightman, 26, of Phoenix, Arizona, charged through the entrance, assault rifle blazing, and saw a figure in a white T shirt. "I blasted it, like, five times, and it kept coming at me," he said a few minutes later, as he headed out on another cave-busting patrol. "I was thinking, this motherf---er won't die." The enemy turned out to be some terrorist's underclothes, flapping on a clothesline.

The question now is whether Qaeda and Taliban fighters are as resilient as their laundry. There's little doubt that two weeks of intensive airstrikes and ground combat have effectively eliminated resistance in the Shahikot Valley. But claims that the fighting is finished--"the war is over; there is no more Al Qaeda in Afghanistan," one senior Afghan commander declared last week--are premature. Despite estimates that as many as 700 enemy fighters had been killed, fewer than 10 corpses have been found on the battlefield. (U.S. commanders insist they intercepted radio requests for hundreds of wooden coffins, even though Afghans normally bury their dead in cloth shrouds.) Even friendly Afghan commanders say that hundreds of guerrillas could have escaped, including up to 150 Chechens who reportedly slipped the noose. While the fighting still raged, Taliban commanders were already sending boastful emissaries across the border into Pakistan. "We have made a point," one told a prominent Pashtun leader in Peshawar. "We have proved we can stand up and fight the Americans. We have no reason to fear."

Anaconda, in fact, may only be the first fire fight in the kind of guerrilla war that planners have feared ever since U.S. troops were deployed in Afghanistan. In towns and villages throughout eastern Afghanistan, leaflets known as shabnamas, night letters, have appeared, accusing the United States of having killed tens of thousands of civilians. "I'm fighting with my pen, not my Kalashnikov this time," says one pamphleteer, a former mujahedin commander. Sources in Peshawar claim that Taliban and Qaeda forces have begun to regroup in areas along both sides of the border. Most of the units are small, 20 or 30 fighters, and led by former low-level Taliban like Saifur Rahman Mansoor, a former deputy garrison commander who organized the resistance at Shahikot. Sources who claim to be in contact with the holdouts say they are only waiting for an opportune moment to strike. "It will not end soon. There are Taliban and Al Qaeda all over that area," says Mullah Alhaj Khaksar, a top Taliban defector in Kabul.

Time is on the guerrillas' side. Already resentment is growing throughout Pashtun areas. Many members of Afghanistan's dominant ethnic group feel isolated from, and neglected by, the central government in Kabul, which, although led by a Pashtun, Hamid Karzai, is dominated by Tajiks from the Northern Alliance. Civilian casualties from U.S. bombing, which has been heaviest in the south, have bred animosity. Squabbling among petty warlords has revived fonder memories of the Taliban, who at least put an end to internecine fighting during their reign. And the Americans won no friends when they asked for reinforcements for Anaconda, and the central government sent 2,000 Tajik troops from the Panjshir Valley to take part in the battle. "It was a mind-bogglingly stupid move," says a Western diplomat in Kabul. "Al Qaeda will use it to [get] more sympathy in Paktia province," says Ismail Zazi, a Pashtun commander who supports the Americans.

With time, too, some of the inherent cracks in the U.S.-Afghan coalition are likely to be exposed. It's now clear that the ambush that claimed eight American and three Afghan lives in the first days of the fighting was based on advance warning of the attack. During the fighting, Qaeda guerrillas managed to buy or win over local Afghans, who reinforced their positions. Americans have been gulled by their Afghan allies before; Pacha Khan Zadran, for one, is accused of tricking Washington into bombing a convoy of his rivals. The loyalties they inspire now should also be suspect. "My heart is still with Osama bin Laden," says a foot soldier named Gulbat, who boasts that he was given his Kalashnikov by U.S. Special Forces to help them clean out the caves at Tora Bora. "If anyone starts fighting the Americans, I'll join tomorrow." So far those are only tough words. But Washington would do well to heed them.

The Unfinished War | News