Ground Assault in Afghanistan
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GWEN IFILL: After weeks of relative quiet in the Afghan War, U.S. forces and their allies have launched the largest ground assault yet in the five- month conflict, targeting Taliban and al-Qaida positions in the rugged mountains of eastern Afghanistan. The estimated 2,000 allied troops on the ground include U.S., Canadian, and European soldiers, though half or more are anti-Taliban Afghans.
On Saturday in the eastern province of Paktia, coalition soldiers began battling Osama bin Laden loyalists in the Shah-e-kot Mountain Range. American warplanes have also attacked from the air, dropping so-called “thermo baric bombs,” designed specifically to suck the air out of enemy caves. But early this morning, a U.S. transport helicopter took heavy fire after landing in battle territory; at least seven Americans died. A separate U.S. casualty came when a second helicopter had landing problems.
In Washington, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and General Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, underscored the danger in the region.
DONALD RUMSFELD: The pocket of al-Qaida at Shah-e-kot area, where this operation is taking place, south of Gardez, appears to have several… a number of pockets of enemy forces in reasonably large numbers. They’re obviously well organized. They’re dug in, they’re well- armed, and they’re fighting fiercely.
GENERAL RICHARD MYERS: We knew that the al-Qaida and their supporters there would have two choices: To run or stay and fight. It seems they have chosen to stay and to fight to the last, and we hope to accommodate them.
GWEN IFILL: Pentagon officials said extensive planning went into the attack, discounting some reports that U.S. forces were slow off the mark.
GENERAL RICHARD MYERS: During my trip to Afghanistan– now it’s been almost two weeks ago exactly– I was briefed on this plan at Bagram by the commander who’s running the operation in Afghanistan, and at that time, they had great detail. So any… I mean, they were… any thought that they went in there unprepared or didn’t know the terrain they were going into is just not true. It’s like we said before: Look at the map. This is very difficult terrain to operate in. The enemy is a very determined enemy, willing to die for their cause.
DONALD RUMSFELD: The fact that people are not moving may not mean that things have stalled. You may be using air power to deal with concentrations of al-Qaida while ground forces maintain position. So I think that the word “stall” is a little like “quagmire,” and it may be premature.
GWEN IFILL: Rumsfeld said he had no indication bin Laden was in the area, but suggested al-Qaida leaders were nearby.
DONALD RUMSFELD: These people didn’t just happen to all meet there. There’s large numbers of them. They’re very well armed, they’re very well equipped, and they’re not milling around– they’re engaged in a very fierce battle. So there’s clearly leadership involved.
REPORTER: Does this appear to be al-Qaida’s last stand in Afghanistan, or are there similarly large and similarly well-organized groups elsewhere in the country?
DONALD RUMSFELD: I would doubt it. I think that it would be an incorrect reading of the situation to think that this would be the last stand. I say that because, as we’ve said repeatedly– and I hope it sinks in to everybody — that it is, in that country, it’s, what, bigger than Texas, and with borders to four, five, six countries. It is very easy to move across borders and then come back in. It’s very easy to slip into the mountains, into tunnels and caves, and stay there for periods. It’s very easy to blend into the countryside, into the villages, and then come back and reconstitute. So the thought that all of the people, all of the Taliban who oppose the interim government that now exists, that Karzai is leading, all of the al-Qaida are gone and disappeared or changed their minds or gone benign, I think is just unrealistic. I think we have to expect that there are other sizable pockets, that there will be other battles of this type.
GWEN IFILL: Two hours later, Afghan War Commander General Tommy Franks gave more details of the helicopter incident.
GENERAL TOMMY FRANKS: My understanding of this operation is that we were conducting an insertion of a reconnaissance element, and I won’t point out exactly where, but we were inserting a reconnaissance element. That element came under fire. When the element came under fire, it was very close to the ground. The helicopter was in fact struck, but was still flyable. As the pilot lifted the helicopter off, I believe one crew member may have fallen from the helicopter. I do not believe that that was recognized immediately.
The helicopter repositioned under its own power, and the helicopter landed and immediately recognized that one crew member had been left behind. Immediately following that there was a force, which was also to insert in that same area, and so that force inserted. When one of the two helicopters of that force first came in and began to land in, not exactly that same area, but close to that area, it also came under fire. It also landed under full control of the pilot. The forces on that helicopter got off the helicopter and immediately came in contact with the enemy force, and that is the place that the casualties came from.
GWEN IFILL: At the afternoon briefing, Franks was asked why this operation was handled differently than last year’s ground assault on Tora Bora, which was conducted largely by Afghan forces.
REPORTER: Can you explain if you learned any lessons from Tora Bora and what similarities and differences might exist between the two? One thing I’m thinking in particular is that so many al-Qaida were able to escape that area. It looks as though you intentionally surrounded to stop that from happening.
GENERAL TOMMY FRANKS: Believe it or not, I suspected someone would ask the question. And let me say, of course we considered not only Tora Bora operations. We also considered operations in the vicinity of Kabul. We considered operations in the vicinity of Kandahar. We considered operations we’ve conducted up in the vicinity of Mazar-e Sharif, and I think others have said each one of these operations has a bit of a different sort of characteristic.
If you think about the mission, the enemy, the troops available, just those three points, and you think about what happened at Tora Bora, and you think about the mission, the enemy and the troops available at that time, then one is able to gain some insight. So it is not, in my view, a matter of having learned the negative lesson from Tora Bora, and I read that to be the implication of your question. I think we learned both the positive and the critical lessons from each one of these operations.
REPORTER: When this operation unfolded yesterday, it was described to us that the Afghan forces had the principal fighting role, that the Americans were in support and carrying out the blocking functions. Now the way you’re describing it today, the Americans are doing the main fighting and the Afghans are in the blocking positions. Have the roles flipped over the last two days? Has there been a change in the way this operation is unfolding?
GENERAL TOMMY FRANKS: It’s actually eye of the beholder. And we have Afghan forces, in fact, who have moved into this fight. It sort of depends on how one characterizes blocking positions. We see Afghan forces in blocking positions. We have also seen one Afghan force, and I won’t describe which one, in a movement-to-contact operation. The effort has not flip-flopped one way or another. It’s only a matter of, in my description, at which point Afghan forces become blocking forces.