March 16, 2002


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B Raman

The omens of Anaconda

The operation, code-named Anaconda by the United States, in the Shah-e-Kot area (Arma mountains) near Gardez in Paktia province of eastern Afghanistan involved a major confrontation between the allied forces led by the US and a mixed group of determined guerilla fighters, operating from inside a cave complex in the area.

On the side of the international coalition were about 1,200 US troops and 200 from Australia, Canada, the UK and other West European countries, reportedly assisted by about 800 Pushtoons of the area. These were subsequently joined by about 1,000 Tajiks of the Northern Alliance rushed to the area from Kabul, resulting in strong criticism by the local Pushtoon warlords. They interpreted this as an insult to their fighting prowess.

Who were pitted against the coalition troops? The answer to this is not as clear. American spokesmen have described them as a mix of the remnants of the Taliban and Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda. But other reports, considered more independent, describe them as a moderate-sized contingent of Pakistanis led by Arab instructors of the 055 Brigade of Al Qaeda.

The Pakistanis involved in the fighting were members of the Sunni extremist Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan, the Harkat-ul-Mujahideen, the Harkat-ul-Jihad-Al-Islami, the Jaish-e-Mohammed and the Lashkar-e-Tayiba. They had survived the US air strikes in Afghanistan and managed to return to Pakistani territory. They have been regrouped and re-trained by a team of retired officers of the Pakistani military-intelligence establishment and many have been re-inducted into eastern Afghanistan (Gardez, Wardak, Ghazni and Khost) to resume the fight against the US troops.

One of their major objectives was to show the Afghan people as well as the rest of the world that contrary to the American claims of having vanquished the Taliban and damaged the Al Qaeda-inspired terrorist infrastructure in Afghanistan, they were still alive and kicking.

In a report carried on March 13, 2002, The News of Islamabad has quoted an Afghan commander in the area as saying that most of the guerillas involved in the fight were Pakistanis and Arabs. The fight, often bitter, lasted 11 days, at the end of which the Afghan troops claimed to have captured the area from the Pakistanis and Arabs on March 12, 2002. The paper quoted General Abdullah Joyenda, an Afghan commander assisting the US troops, as saying that most of the surviving Pakistanis and Arabs retreated towards the Pakistani border. The report did not say whether they had re-entered Pakistan.

For want of adequate information, it is difficult to find an acceptable answer to many questions such as: How did the fighting erupt? Did the Pakistanis and Arabs surprise the Americans or did the Americans surprise them in their hideout? How was it that during the earlier electronic and ground sweep during and after the fighting in the Tora Bora area the presence of these remnants in this area (Shah-e-Kot) escaped notice? If they were not present in this area at that time, from where did they infiltrate? From some other area of Afghanistan or from Pakistan?

There is a cloak of secrecy about the nature of the fighting and the ultimate results as well. But from the details filtering out of Pakistan, one can assess, with some measure of conviction, that the Americans, who suffered casualties of eight personnel from enemy fire directed at their helicopters, relied -- as they have been doing since October 7, 2001 -- on air power, precision-guided firepower of tremendous destructive capability and long-range ground-firing capability. They avoided any ground action that might have brought their troops into close proximity with the guerillas.

For close proximity action such as that undertaken on March 12, 2002, they depended on the Afghans to avoid heavy casualties of their own troops. After having softened the guerilla positions on the ground through air strikes and long-range firing, they used the Afghans to finally capture the cave complex and mop up the jihadi guerillas.

Figures of the strength of the jihadi forces pitted against the Americans and of the casualties inflicted on them widely vary. The American claim of having killed more than 500 fighters of Al Qaeda and the Taliban during the 11-day action are not corroborated by the accounts of the Afghan allies of the US who put the number of bodies recovered during their mopping-up on March 12 at less than 50.

Despite the paucity of reliable information filtering across the curtain imposed by the Americans, it would appear that Anaconda has been more an embarrassing surprise for the Americans than a famous victory. Embarrassing surprise because it showed the earlier American belief or claims of having defeated the mix of the Taliban and Al Qaeda to have been premature. Also because Anaconda has shown, if proof was needed, that the entire war on terrorism could come unstuck if the Americans do not deal with the dregs of the present Afghan war, who are now operating from Pakistani territory.

During the 1980s, the Pakistani territory in Baluchistan, the North-West Frontier Province and the Federally Administered Tribal Agencies functioned effectively and devastatingly as the rear base for the Afghan mujahideen and foreign, essentially Arab, mercenary groups which made the Soviet troops bleed. The very same Pakistani sanctuaries are now sought to be used by the surviving dregs of the Taliban, Al Qaeda and the Pakistani jihadi conglomerate to frustrate the US-led campaign in the Pushtoon areas of southern and eastern Afghanistan.

Instead of focussing on this, the Bush administration is letting its attention and that of its allies be diverted to the more alluring task of turning their guns on President Saddam Hussein of Iraq. If not bin Laden, let us at least get the head of Saddam Hussein as our trophy. That seems to be the cry in Washington, DC.

They may be able to get Saddam's head, but that will not be the end of the terrorism directed against America. The key to the end of the Al Qaeda-inspired terrorism against America and the rest of the international community lies in the Pakistan-southern/eastern Afghanistan region, not in Iraq, Iran, North Korea, Somalia, Yemen, Georgia or the southern Philippines. Till the Pakistan/Afghanistan region is totally cleared of and sanitised against the terrorist infection, more events such as September 11 are likely.

The warning signs are there, loud and clear, for the Americans to read if only they open their eyes fully instead of fighting the war on terror with their eyes half-open as they have been doing so far lest they see Pakistan for what it is, the snakepit of international terrorism.

Shah-e-Kot was only one of these warning signs, but not the first. There were others before it:

If these warning signs are not heeded, another terrorist Pearl Harbour is likely -- sooner than later.

B Raman was additional secretary in the Cabinet Secretariat, Government of India. Now he is director of the Institute for Topical Studies in Chennai.

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