GWEN IFILL: To discuss the latest developments in the war in Afghanistan, we turn to Michael Gordon, who covers military affairs for The New York Times; and Lieutenant Colonel Ralph Peters, who retired from the U.S. Army in 1998; he served as an Army intelligence officer.
GWEN IFILL: Colonel Peters, is this the beginning of a new ground war?
LT. COL. RALPH PETERS (Ret.) U.S. Army: No, this is a logical continuation of what we've been doing. And it also reflects, I think, a marked improvement. Our military has done a very good job of learning on the fly, learning during wartime. And clearly in this operation, they put together a number of factors that the immediacy of the Tora Bora operation did not permit.
We've seen them, for instance, get the allies involved and in line, take weeks to make sure the Pakistanis were supporting us on their side of the border. The intelligence has clearly been carefully developed. It's obviously an integrated plan. We brought in special munitions for it. And, finally, even the timing was carefully chosen. I believe that General Franks clearly wanted to hit these Al-Qaida and Taliban fighters before the spring thaw set in so it would be tougher for them to get away.
GWEN IFILL: So when we look at this and we realize the timing, when America was looking the other way and thinking about Iraq or Yemen or Soviet Georgia, you're saying that this was the time all along when they were going to take an action like this?
LT. COL. RALPH PETERS: I'm not sure they knew exactly which day they would launch it but I think they were waiting until they got everything online. They were planning it probably since at least January. And so the timing makes sense in terms of weather conditions, which are always very important. Although the weather makes it tough for us, operating at 10,000 feet in the winter is tough for both sides, and the Afghans are -- probably have better leg muscles developed; they've been up there and better lungs - we've got better training and better equipment. A military operation can always gone bad on you. This one has not gone bad and appears to be going very, very well.
GWEN IFILL: Michael, does that track with your reporting on the timing?
MICHAEL GORDON: What is interesting about this operation is how different it is from Tora Bora. The Tora Bora operation went on for several weeks. In that case, the United States relied largely on Afghan forces to do the fighting and many of the al-Qaida fighters got away, possibly including bin Laden. This operation was planned over a longer period of time, over a period of several weeks. And I think they did learn the lessons of Tora Bora, even though I don't think they would like to put it that way -- but I think in fact they did -- that in order to make sure this operation is done right, Americans not only have to play a supporting role, but in this case, they're really doing the direct combat role.
GWEN IFILL: Michael, tell us about this region, this eastern mountainous region of Afghanistan, Paktia Province. This is a place where we have heard the Pentagon today --- the U.S. has been keeping an eye for a while on escaped or fleeing al-Qaida leadership and that they've known they were there, they've been trying to focus on them. That's another part of the why now question, I guess, if we knew this is where they were all along. What is it about this region that made today's action unique or different?
MICHAEL GORDON: Well, when I was in Kabul, I think in December, I talked to the Afghan defense minister, [Mohammad Qasim] Fahim, and he explained to me that Paktia and the other provinces in this vicinity, which are very close to Pakistan, really is the natural turf of a lot of people who support the Taliban and the al-Qaida. It's really their kind of home court advantage, so to speak. The population there has been sympathetic, is close to Pakistan, in case they want to come back and forth across the border, and also the terrain is very useful to them. They're up in the mountains. They're 10,000 feet, 12,000 feet. American helicopters are not having the easiest time operating at these altitudes with the load that they're carrying.
So they picked defensible terrain in a part of the country where they have some base of popular support. There are some indications they have been gathering food there and they're there with their families. And that's what accounts for them being in this region of the country.
GWEN IFILL: Colonel Peters, what he just described and what you described about the weather, this is a very difficult region. How difficult is it for the United States to be the lead force, to be the ground force in an area like this where it's hard for helicopters to fly, hard for American troops to go cave to cave?
LT. COL. RALPH PETERS: It's harder than anything in the experience of most Americans. And yet we have the best-equipped military in the world to do it. Also, you have an interesting dynamic. We have special operations force involved extra several allied countries. Those boys are competitive, and they're all going to try to outperform each other. So you basically have a dynamic team effort, everybody trying to be the best. Nobody wants to let their country down. Everybody wants to show how strong they are. So it's really physically difficult and demanding.
And, as Michael pointed out, it is tough on helicopters. You can't carry as much weight. You have to reduce the load. Our helicopters, some of them are just not designed to fly that high operationally. They're harder to maneuver. But military operations are tough. There are going to be casualties and I can't think of anybody better prepared to do it than us.
GWEN IFILL: Michael, who are we after there? Who are these Taliban or Al-Qaida leadership that Secretary Rumsfeld was talking about today if not the familiar names of Mullah Omar and Osama bin Laden?
MICHAEL GORDON: Well, I've talked to senior Pentagon officials. They really have no idea who is there in terms of the senior leadership, but they know what types of fighters are there. They're talking about Arab fighters; Uzbek radicals, who have been a problem for the Uzbek government; perhaps Chechens. These are not Afghan members of the Taliban who could fold back into the society, nor are they necessarily Pakistanis who could cross the border and go home again. These are foreign fighters who came to Afghanistan for jihad and basically have no place else to go. That's why they're fighting to the death there in many cases. It's either a Guantanamo jail cell for these people or fight to the death with the Americans and it looks like a lot of them, according to General Myers today have elected the latter.
GWEN IFILL: Michael, you describe this operation as code named Anaconda. What does that tell us about what they're trying to accomplish and how they're trying to accomplish it?
MICHAEL GORDON: Well, again, I think it shows that they learned a lesson at Tora Bora, where they failed to close the gate, and many of the fighters crossed into Pakistan. Anaconda, I'm not an expert on snakes, but it's meant to signify a snake that encircles its prey and then crushes it. They say they've already cut out the main escape routes and have these fighters surrounded. The idea is to surround them, cut them off, prevent any escape and then either take their surrender or kill them in an operation that is decisive and has a very clear -- doesn't have a muddled ending but a rather clear outcome.
GWEN IFILL: Colonel Peters, is that the way to handle it?
LT. COL. RALPH PETERS: Well, actually when I comment on the Anaconda issue, that's some very well educated staff officer having a good time. He's paying tribute to General Winfield Scott, one of our greatest generals of the 19th century. His plan at the beginning of the Civil War was called the Anaconda Plan. It was exactly that on a grand scale.
So - and as far as the tactics go, I would never second guess a commander on the ground. They know the situation better than we can. But it certainly appears sensible and logical in terms of how you do these operations to have holders and hitters -- blocking forces, drive the enemy into prepared positions. And, again, plans change. You can have the best plan in the world. But you learn as you develop. Intel might be great but they may have fewer over here or more over there. Sometimes the enemy will always manage to surprise you and so the plan will adjust. You'll need more U.S. troops here, fewer there. With that said, it does appear to me quite sincerely that this was very, very well designed.
GWEN IFILL: Michael, that was your voice at the pentagon briefing asking the question about the blocking and tackling, whatever the terminology was you were using to ask them about exactly why everyone's role had changed here. Before, the Afghan allies were our proxy, they were the ones who were going to fight this out on the ground and America were going to attack by air. We saw something different this time.
MICHAEL GORDON: Yes. What's really important about this is that American forces are involved, not only Special Operation forces but regular Army forces, Tenth Mountain Division troops, 101st Airborne forces, including Apache helicopters, including some of the helicopters that took the fire. So regular Army troops are involved, not just special operations.
And they're not involved in support role. They're involved in a direct combat role. This has never happened on this scale in Afghanistan in the entire five-month war. It's a new development in the war. I argue that there is a logic for this and it is really a long overdue that some of the previous battles would have turned out differently if the U.S. had been a little more aggressive. Be that as it may, this is a new turn in the war.
LT. COL. RALPH PETERS: Just a moment. Generally I agree with what Michael has said, but you know, if the military had done this operation hastily without such thorough preparation, then we would be faulting them for taking more casualties, for perhaps flubbing it. They took the time to do it right because now they had the time. In Tora Bora, they didn't have the time. It was at the end of a very confusing, very fast paced war with a collapsing government. I think they did the best they could with what they had.
GWEN IFILL: Well, something else that's different, Colonel, is also that the Paktia region, as you pointed out, is so close to the Pakistani border. Is the U.S. deciding it's going to take it into its own hands protecting the border and stopping people from fleeing?
LT. COL. RALPH PETERS: Well, I think Michael is actually the one pointed that out. I'll give him credit for that. But I think that's certainly part of the equation. The Pakistanis from what I'm hearing from friends in theater are much more on board now. They are going to block that border. General Musharraf appears to have the ISI -- their intelligence services -- under better control. I can guarantee you that the unhappiest U.S. Soldiers in Afghanistan today are the ones that aren't in on this fight.
GWEN IFILL: Michael, is there any evidence that our relationship with the people who are allies on the ground, whether it was Pakistan or Afghan allies, whether our interests have by now diverged?
MICHAEL GORDON: Well, historically in this rather short war, American and Afghan allies, by that, I mean our Afghan allies, our interests converged when it came to taking cities, Kabul, Jalalabad, Mazar-e Sharif, and that's because these Afghans wanted to install themselves in power in these cities. But where they diverged was when it came to hunting down Al-Qaida and Osama bin Laden and the mountain, which was of in no real benefit to them except maybe if they came into the reward money.
So I think that's yet another factor here. They seem to have lined up, well 1,000 of the 2,000-large force that's fighting there is made up of Afghans. They've trained and put together a force of Afghans to cooperate with the Americans in this battle. And they know the terrain best. But the early indications also are that when some of the forces came into resistance, they pulled back, whereas when the American forces came into resistance, they were more determined to proceed with the battle.
GWEN IFILL: Michael Gordon, Ralph Peters, thank you very much.