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Monday, March 4, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Afghans: U.S. botched attack

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ETMANAI, Afghanistan — A force of about 1,000 U.S. troops and their Afghan allies continued to battle al-Qaida fighters in the rugged mountains of eastern Afghanistan, a day after the opening ground assault was sidetracked by heavy resistance and weak tactics, Afghan leaders and soldiers said.

Pentagon officials described the battle as the largest U.S. ground assault of the war, for the first time involving conventional American troops.

U.S. official said "intense ground fighting" involving U.S. soldiers continued into last night. But they offered few details of the battle, and no up-to-date reports of American, allied or enemy casualties. One U.S. soldier was reported killed and 34 wounded Saturday.

Several key Afghan commanders and local authorities gave grim accounts of the launch of the offensive at dawn Saturday outside the village of Shahikot, where U.S. special forces had organized an assault by Afghan fighters.

Before the attack could begin, they said, a pre-emptive al-Qaida mortar and machine-gun barrage killed an American soldier and wounded dozens of Afghan and American troops.

"They made a big mistake," Said Mohammed Isshaq, the Afghan security chief in the provincial capital of Gardez, said of the American commanders at Shahikot. "They went ahead without making trenches, without reinforcing their positions. And then they were cut off. They retreated really badly."

The assessment was shared by Afghan soldiers on the battlefield. "Our command was really bad. The American command was really bad," said Khial Mohammed, a 22-year-old soldier who was wounded. "We didn't think about all the aspects of the battle before we attacked."

Gul Mohammed, 30, an Afghan soldier, criticized the Americans for massing the troops for instructions and presenting an easy target. "Why did they do that?" he asked. "They're intelligent. They're trained. They're not idiots. ... There was no need to gather near the enemy's place and start giving directions."

The small-arms and mortar fire was so intense that it was difficult to bring in helicopters for reinforcements and to evacuate the wounded. Instead, the wounded were tended on the ground by medics and not evacuated until 1 a.m. yesterday.

Late yesterday, CH-47 helicopters from the 101st Airborne Division, flying low under covering fire from AC-130 gunships and AH-64 Apache attack helicopters, managed to land reinforcements high in the peaks and ridgelines where fighting is taking place.

U.S. officers said their forces came under withering fire as soon as they arrived in Shahikot but had regained the initiative since the initial battle.

"There were many bad people shooting very big-caliber weapons at them," Maj. Bryan Hilferty, a spokesman for the Army's 10th Mountain Division, said from Bagram Air Base. "Now we have them isolated — and we have put some heavy casualties on them."

U.S. officials said there had been no withdrawal of American troops and that any retreat would have been a tactical move by a small number of forces.

American troops in the battle are drawn from the Army's 101st Airborne Division and the 10th Mountain Division. In addition, the Pentagon said forces from Australia, Canada, Denmark, France, Germany and Norway were participating.

It was unclear how many al-Qaida troops and sympathizers remained in the mountains around Shahikot. Taj Mohammed Wardak, the governor of Gardez, estimated as few as 450, while Isshaq suggested it was closer to 3,000 or 4,000. The area contains warrens of manmade caves carved from the mountains by Afghan fighters during more than two decades of war against the Soviets and each other.

Afghan officials said yesterday that Afghan units commanded by U.S. Special Forces have formed a "security belt" around Shahikot, about 12 miles to the south of this village.

"We are back on track and we are tightening the noose," said Col. Joseph Smith, chief of staff of the Army's 10th Mountain Division and of the coalition joint task force that is running Operation Anaconda from a makeshift command post at Bagram Air Base.

Speaking of the al-Qaida, Taj Mohammed Wardak, Gardez governor, said yesterday afternoon, "They're surrounded and little by little the circle is getting smaller." He added that "the ground forces are only blocking the ways of escaping" while American bombers pounded away.

When U.S. combat troops assaulted the area, "It was like whacking a hornet's nest with a stick," said Maj. Dennis Yates, fire-support officer for Task Force Rakkasan, the combined group of 10th Mountain and 101st Airborne troops.

"At least we know where they are now, and if they want to come at us and martyr themselves — hey, we're ready," Yates said.

The failure of the initial ground assault underscored the difficulties as U.S. forces pursue pockets of al-Qaida and Taliban resistance. While the Taliban regime has fallen and Osama bin Laden's terrorism network has been damaged inside Afghanistan, anti-American guerrillas have been trying to regroup, officials said.

A group of al-Qaida fighters seeking refuge arrived about a week ago in the tiny village of Shahikot, according to local Afghan officials. Many of the new arrivals had fled Kabul in November when the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance captured the capital. Others had escaped from the mountains of Tora Bora, where U.S. and Afghan forces attacked al-Qaida units in December.

"We've killed a number of these guys — that's the good news," said Army Maj. Gen. F.L. "Buster" Hagenbeck, who directed the operation. A different assessment came from one 10th Mountain trooper who stumbled off an evacuation helicopter at 1 a.m. yesterday after nearly 24 hours of fighting.

"Bad day," he growled.

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