officials divided on whether the war is winding down or taking shape
BAGRAM, Afghanistan — Hundreds of weary U.S. soldiers descended from the Afghan mountains Sunday after a grueling eight-day battle against enemy holdouts. U.S. bombers pounded the caves where the remaining fighters were hiding.
The Army said ground fighting was winding down but that Operation Anaconda would continue until the last of the al-Qaida and Taliban fighters had been killed or surrendered in the Shah-e-Kot mountains.
About 400 U.S. troops returned to the Bagram air base north of Kabul on Sunday in wave after wave of CH-47 Chinook helicopters. It wasn’t clear when the remaining 600 would be out of the fighting zone.
“We’re home!” the soldiers shouted, offering high-fives to elated colleagues. A few shook their heads in disbelief, grateful they had made it out alive.
U.S. military officials in the United States and in Afghanistan characterized the state of fighting differently.
Maj. Bryan Hilferty, the 10th Mountain Division spokesman, told reporters at Bagram that “the major fighting of the battle is over.” But Gen. Tommy Franks, the commander of the war, took issue with that statement.
Speaking on ABC’s “This Week,” Franks said that while some U.S. troops have been moved out of the battle area, others would take their places. “I don’t know that I could characterize it as winding down,” he said.
Operation Anaconda was launched March 2 to crush al-Qaida and Taliban forces in the mountains of Paktia province. U.S. officials said the operation would continue until the last of the enemy troops surrendered or died.
While the mission was hailed as a success, U.S. soldiers on the front lines were disappointed with one glaring absence: Afghan troops. According to pool reports from Sahikot Valley, the original plan was for U.S. soldiers to pull out after a couple days and be replaced by Afghan troops led by commander Zia Lodin. According to U.S. troops, Zia’s unit never showed.
“Who cares,” said one soldier in the battle zone, south of the town of Gardez. “I don’t think anybody here cares anymore. If Zia comes, great. If not, oh well.”
In Gardez, an Afghan commander, Ismail, said al-Qaida and Taliban forces in the area were ”75 percent spent” and he expected a final push within the next two days. Coalition forces said they killed at least 500 fighters and that about 200 were believed left. Eight Americans and three of their Afghan allies died.
Ismail said American officers told him to wait for more bombing to soften up the last of the enemy forces. Late Sunday, the roar of U.S. jets and the distant thud of explosions could be heard from the battle area.