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Update: Ground Assault in Afghanistan

March 8, 2002 at 12:00 AM EDT
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TOM BEARDEN: Battlefield commanders directing “Operation Anaconda” believe they now have the upper hand. Overnight, they say they inflicted further heavy casualties on the diehard fighters dug into the mountains near Gardez, hard on the border with Pakistan. American soldiers wounded in the operation, now convalescing at Ramstein Air Force Base in Germany, spoke today of intense combat.

SPEC. RICARDO MIRANDA, U.S. Army: We came under fire… small arms, some machine gun fire, and some mortar fire as well, and we just proceeded to take cover and fight the enemy back.

TOM BEARDEN: At the Pentagon, Air Force Brigadier General John Rosa said finding a hard figure for enemy killed is a difficult task.

BRIG. GEN. JOHN ROSA, Deputy Operations Director, Joint Staff: When you go up to an anthill, you don’t know how many ants are in there until you disturb the anthill. It’s just like these cave complexes. We don’t know how many people are in there, and when we collapse these caves, we may never know how many people are in there. But we do know that we’ve had success. We do know that we’ve killed several hundred.

REPORTER: How will you know when you’ve achieved a victory?

BRIG. GEN. JOHN ROSA: When do we know there’s victory? When there’s none left and there’s not any resistance.

TOM BEARDEN: And speaking in Florida this morning, a visibly upset commander-in-chief spoke of a long road ahead.

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: It is a sign of what’s going to happen for a while. And my fellow Americans must understand that– that we’ll be relentless and determined to do what is right, and we will take a loss of life. And I’m sad for loss of life. And today we’ve got the mom and dad of a brave soldier who lost his life, and a brother. God bless you.

TOM BEARDEN: To date, eight American servicemen have been killed as part of “Operation Anaconda,” and 50 have been wounded.

MARGARET WARNER: And for an end-of-the week update on “Operation Anaconda,” we turn to mark Thompson, Time Magazine’s national security correspondent.

So, Mark, is it fair to say that this operation has turned out to be more intense and more difficult than we thought at the beginning of the week?

MARK THOMPSON: The opening days last Saturday, last Sunday, military people were telling us that this would be over in a couple of days. It would probably involve 300 or 400 Al-Qaida in the mountains. Now we have the Secretary of Defense saying today it could likely go on for another six or eight, or ten days, and that we’ve already killed 500 or 600 bad guys.

Well, there were only 400 to begin with, so something is a little wrong here. I mean, a guy in the military today called it the bathtub strategy, we stuck our toe into the hot water and pulled it out and said, “whoa, it’s a little too hot there. Let’s crank up the cold water and cool this thing down.” That’s what they’ve been doing for the last several days. And for the last 36 hours fighting by the Al-Qaida against our troops has really been low.

MARGARET WARNER: General Rosa said today at the briefing that they have the 60 square mile area and they are systematically clearing it. What do they mean by that?

MARK THOMPSON: I think basically what they’re going to be doing is gridding up the valley and in each square of the grid, going into the caves that are there that they think are big enough to sustain life, to have enough supplies, food and water so people can actually live in there. The question is some of those are likely to be booby-trapped. So even as it gets quiet in there, it still could be very dangerous.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, how vulnerable are the U.S. soldiers on the ground? Give us some idea… the warfare — from looking at the video, the limited video we have– it looks like guerrilla warfare.

MARK THOMPSON: Yeah. I mean, what we’re finding is that the Al-Qaida are using World War II type of weapons, you know — guns, rocket-propelled grenades, relatively small arms. When our guys come in and these bad guys are hidden, largely higher up, they can be in harm’s way pretty quickly. But along the same lines, our guys are able to haul in massive amounts last week, many of the soldiers coming out are praising the U.S. Air Force to the high heavens, because they had B-52′s F-15s, A-10s, Apache helicopter gun ships, AC-130 gun ships, come to their aid within moments of running into this trouble. So that really turned the battle for our guys and there would have been a lot more casualties had that air power not been there.

MARGARET WARNER: Yet at times it seems, for instance, there was an operation that’s coming out today, on Saturday, where the… there was the 10th Mountain Division was airdropped in somewhere and got pinned down and the helicopters couldn’t come in, right?

MARK THOMPSON: Right.

MARGARET WARNER: Tell us about that.

MARK THOMPSON: Plainly, helicopters can be vulnerable to fire. In the daytime they’re most vulnerable. So you have to pick and choose your targets and you have to be careful about when you insert folks. What a lot of the soldiers coming out now going back to Bagram are saying, gee, this is a lot hotter than we expected it to be.” And that’s raised a lot of questions about just how good was the intelligence?

Plainly it is like an anthill; you don’t know where all the bad guys are when you first go in. But if you’ve been monitoring it as the Pentagon said for several weeks in advance, you find it tough to believe that we could put soldiers right in the heart of an Al-Qaida stronghold, and that did happen on Saturday.

MARGARET WARNER: Then, on Monday, that’s the other incident there’s been a lot of discussion about this week. That’s where really most of these soldiers were killed. What’s your best understanding of what happened there?

MARK THOMPSON: Well, basically, there we were putting in soldiers who… the way we’re fighting this war is we’re bombing, soldiers come in by helicopter, they try to raise guys out of caves and shoot them dead, so that’s sort of seesawing – it’s going back and forth. And what happened here was, you had a pair of helicopters go in, they came under fire. Surprisingly, one of the helicopters jerked away.

The Navy petty officer, a Seal, fell out, didn’t realize it immediately. As soon as they did realize it, the helicopter from which he fell out had been wrecked a little bit. They had to land over here. Within actually three hours they called in reinforcements. These other guys came in to try to find that guy who had actually been dragged away by Al-Qaida and had been killed. As the two new helicopters came in, and it landed pretty close to the original, where the Seal went down, they came under great fire and had a hard landing. They had a hard landing, the guys came out the rear ramp of the helicopter and– bang– it was almost as if… you can make the argument that it was an ambush, that they were laying in wait knowing this one guy was here, and, “Hey, more Americans are going to try to come to rescue him,” and some people think that is what happened.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, the enemy, Donald Rumsfeld keeps calling them dead-enders. Who do think they think are, where do they think so many came from, are there reinforcements coming in?

MARK THOMPSON: The sense is there are still some reinforcements, but not a lot. It’s tough to tell. The real question here is motive. They are really fighting fanatically. They are taking big risks, they’re willing to die, and that’s an awful tough foe to dislodge. It’s a little puddle here, a little puddle here; it’s not an army. So you’re fighting dozens of little wars, not one big war. And if you prevail here, tomorrow, or the next hour, you may have a battle here. So it’s a very tough kind of warfare.

MARGARET WARNER: The fact is, though, that they are not trying to get away, as they did– at least we believe they did– in Tora Bora, Kandahar, and so on. What is… the DOD conclude from that?

MARK THOMPSON: There have been wisps all along that Osama bin Laden is up there. Nobody knows this. There are Afghans who insist he’s up there. They firmly believe he’s up there. We don’t know. We may never know.

But you have to figure it’s got to be something pretty amazing for folks, number one, to fight to the death, number two for some people coming from Pakistan and other places in Afghanistan to be sucked into what basically everyone acknowledges is a suicide mission, but yet they want to do it. So you have to wonder what it is that they’re protecting.

MARGARET WARNER: You mentioned the Afghans and our Afghan allies. Now at the beginning of the week we were using the Afghan traps to block the getaways, which I guess there have been very few attempts. Now there’s talk of a 1,000-man force sent by Hamid Karzai, is that part of the operation, or are they freelancers?

MARK THOMPSON: It isn’t a thousand. Central command says it’s probably closer to 200. The U.S. welcomes help in sort of pinning the bad guys in. They will welcome this help, they’ve welcomed help from the Afghans all along. Sometimes the Afghans have played a good role and sometimes they’ve gotten in the way. We’ll have to see how this pans out.

MARGARET WARNER: I mean, that raises the question, to what degree is DOD actually depending on them, because they didn’t prove terribly dependable in certain ways previously -

MARK THOMPSON: The military insists that what happened in Tora Bora and what’s happening this week are unrelated and we didn’t really learn lessons from there, that we’re doing the opposite this time. But it’s plain that they are doing things this time, they’re not relying on proxy force. They’re saying if we’re going to get these guys, Americans are going to do it. And regardless of what they’re saying, it’s a much different type of warfare being waged now than was being waged in December at Tora Bora.

MARGARET WARNER: Mark, thank you very much.

MARK THOMPSON: Thank you.