A summary of major events since the battle at Tora Bora: Operation Anaconda,
Karzai's election, and emerging controversies over civilian casualties and
alleged wartime atrocities.
The largest battle of the war in Afghanistan to date was mounted in March 2002,
three months after the collapse of the Taliban. In Operation Anaconda -- the
largest U.S. ground offensive since the Gulf War -- over 2,000 U.S. and
coalition forces moved into in eastern Afghanistan, where, according to
intelligence reports, hundreds of Al Qaeda and Taliban were amassing in the
mountains and caves of the Shah-e-Kot valley.
The plan was for friendly Afghan forces to attack the enemy from the north and
force them south, where U.S. troops were waiting at the three escape routes
from the valley. The assault, a combination of airstrikes and ground battles,
did not start off well for the allied forces and what was expected to last 72
hours stretched out for more than two weeks. Coalition commanders had been
expecting to find between 150 and 200 enemy fighters in the valley; after their
arrival, they increased their estimate to between 500 and 1,000 -- a figure
that some Afghan commanders dispute.
The heaviest U.S. casualties occurred on March 4, the third day of the
fighting. Two MH-47 Chinook helicopters were hit by heavy fire from small arms
and rocket-propelled grenades as they approached their battle position,
code-named Ginger, where allied forces had taken heavy fire in previous days.
The two helicopters managed to fly off but soon found that Navy SEAL Neil
Roberts had fallen out the back of a damaged Chinook. Two more helicopters flew
back to drop off troops to rescue Roberts, who had been captured and killed. An
18-hour battle ensued in which six more Americans died. U.S. forces had not
suffered such a high number of casualties in one single day since the 1993
battle in Mogadishu, Somalia, where 18 Rangers and
Special Operations soldiers were killed.
The heaviest fighting of Operation Anaconda occurred in the first week of the
battle. According to U.S. Colonel Frank Wiercinski, the commander of the
initial assault, the fighting tapered off from March 7 to March 12, when Al
Qaeda snipers became the biggest problem.
The operation ended on March 19, when the last U.S. and Canadian forces left
the Shah-e-Kot Valley. U.S. commanders declared the operation a success;
coalition troops had killed hundreds of Al Qaeda fighters and recovered
intelligence documents, arms and ammunition caches from the caves. However,
Afghan commanders did not necessarily agree with the U.S. evaluation. They
claimed that U.S. estimates of enemy casualties were too high and that many
Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters managed to flee the valley.
In May 2002, the U.N. Security Council voted to extend the mandate for the
International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), the multinational peacekeeping
force in Kabul. Turkey -- the only Muslim country to contribute peacekeepers to
the force -- agreed to take over the command of the ISAF from Britain and began
leading the second phase of the mission on June 20. As of Sept. 2002, there are
over 5,000 peacekeeping forces from over 20 countries in Kabul.
As mandated in the Bonn agreement, in June 2002, Afghanis from
throughout the country gathered in Kabul for a loya jirga -- or traditional
Afghan grand council -- to form a second interim government to rule the country
for the next year and a half to two years. The new administration, known as the
transitional authority, would face Afghanistan's need for economic, political and social
reconstruction, including the drafting a new constitution. At the
end of this second interim administration, a nation-wide popular election would
be held to determine a new government.
Attending the loya jirga were approximately 1,500 delegates -- including 160
women -- who were chosen from districts throughout the country. For more than a
week they passionately debated the overwhelming issues facing Afghanistan, from
security to hunger to illiteracy.
On the third day of the session, Hamid Karzai, who had been named chairman of
the interim authority in December 2001, was elected president of the
transitional authority in a landslide with 1,295 votes. Of his two challengers,
one made Afghan history as the first woman to run for president. Karzai
received endorsements from former King Mohammad Zahir Shah, and Northern
Alliance members including members of the interim authority cabinet and former
President Burhanuddin Rabbani.
However, although the loya jirga was intended to give a voice to the Afghan
population, many delegates complained that their role had been reduced to
rubber-stamping backroom deals conducted by powerful warlords. Although he had
taken himself out of the running before the loya jirga opened, the former king
retained tremendous grass-roots support, and many delegates complained that he
had been strong-armed by Northern Alliance and U.S. pressure into stepping
aside. Karzai praised Zahir Shah as "the father of the nation" and announced
that the former king would be allowed to live in the royal palace and asked to
convene future parliamentary and constitutional commissions.
On June 19, Hamid Karzai and his cabinet were sworn in. The end result of the
cabinet's composition surprised many; Karzai retained the Northern Alliance
leaders and ethnic Tajiks Muhammad Qasim Fahim Khan and Dr. Abdullah as
defense minister and foreign minister respectively. Fahim was also appointed as
one of three vice presidents in the administration. Karzai replaced the
Northern Alliance leader and ethnic Tajik Younus Qanooni with an ethnic Pashtun
as interior minister. Qanooni was appointed minister of education and was also
given a role as special advisor to the president on internal security.
On July 1, while searching for Taliban leaders in southern Afghanistan, U.S.
aircraft attacked a village in Oruzgan Province after Special Forces on the ground
reported seeing antiaircraft guns firing. More than forty villagers died and many more were wounded in the
incident, which the survivors maintained was a wedding party where civilians
were firing guns in the air in celebration.
U.S. officials have acknowledged that civilians were killed and that
the incident not only strained U.S. relations with Afghanistan, but prompted
worldwide anger over what was perceived as a trigger-happy U.S. approach to the
The U.S. and Afghan governments have not released any official estimates as to
the number of civilian casualties in Afghanistan. Media estimates of civilian
casualties vary wildly -- from the low hundreds to up to 5,000.
In a July 21 article, The New York Times reported that its investigation
of 11 locations where as many as 400 civilians were killed "suggest that
American commanders have sometimes relied on mistaken information from local
Afghans." The article also questioned whether the U.S. military's reliance on
airstrikes rather than troops on the ground inhibited its ability to
double-check the accuracy of its intelligence.
In late August, Newsweek magazine reported on its investigation of
claims that many Taliban and Al Qaeda prisoners captured during the battle
at Mazar-e-Sharif were killed as they were being transported by Northern
Alliance troops under the command of Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum to Sherberghan
John Barry, the author of the Newsweek report, told FRONTLINE, "What we
have found is that certainly several hundred prisoners, perhaps many hundreds
of prisoners, instead of being sent home or sent to prison in the normal way,
were loaded secretly into freight container trucks, which were then sealed, and
they were left to asphyxiate. By the time the trucks drew up at Sherbergen
Prison, in the courtyard, they were all dead." He continues, "One of the
drivers said to us that when they opened the doors, the dead spilled out like
Because U.S. Special Forces were rarely far from Gen. Dostum's side, it raises
the question of whether they knew or could have prevented these alleged
atrocities. Soldiers interviewed by FRONTLINE insist that they had no
knowledge of the incident. "No
member of this detachment ever witnessed any atrocities being committed," the
captain of the A-team on the ground with Gen. Dostum says.
Barry tells FRONTLINE that it is unclear whether the Special Forces soldiers
knew about this incident. However he says, "It is clear from the beginning of
this year the Defense Department and officials elsewhere in the administration
knew, first of all, that there were allegations of mass slaughter of the
prisoners from Kunduz; and secondly that there was a mass grave outside
the prison." He remarked, "I'm reminded of the old proverb, there is none so
blind as them who will not see."
On Sept. 5, the same day a car bomb exploded in Kabul and killed at least 30 Afghans, a
gunman fired at Hamid Karzai, missing the president, but wounding Kandahar
governor Gul Agha Sherzai. The incident, believed to be linked to Al Qaeda and
the Taliban, marked the fourth assassination attempt since Karzai assumed
power. In February, the minister of civil aviation and tourism, Abdul Rahman,
was stabbed to death at the Kabul airport.
Two months later, on April 8, Muhammad Qasim Fahim Khan, who was defense
minister in the interim administration and now serves both as vice president
and defense minister, was the victim of an assassination attempt when the
convoy he was traveling in was bombed. Four people were killed and 20 were
injured in that incident.
On July 6, as he was leaving the Ministry of Public Works, which he headed,
Vice President Abdul Qadir and his driver were killed by two gunmen firing
assault rifles. The murder of the second highest-ranking Pashtun in the
government remains unsolved.
home + on the ground + assessing the campaign + with us or against us? + fighting on two fronts: a chronology
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