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The San Francisco Chronicle March 23, 2002

Success in Afghan war hard to gauge

U.S. reluctance to produce body counts makes proving enemy's destruction difficult

By Edward Epstein

The fog of war has descended over the U.S. military's Operation Anaconda, the recently concluded effort to kill hundreds of al Qaeda and Taliban soldiers in the mountains of eastern Afghanistan.

In the war against terrorism, President Bush has said success will be difficult to measure. But analysts say the administration's refusal to produce evidence of its success -- and the inherent difficulties of measuring the outcome of a battle in a remote area -- cast some skepticism over the Pentagon's contention that Operation Anaconda wiped out the enemy.

"We just don't know how many (of the enemy) slipped away. But the public might be properly puzzled about how so many of the bad guys could wander on and off the battle area without being seen," said John Pike, an intelligence expert at GlobalSecurity.org. Anaconda, in which at least 2,000 U.S. troops joined hundreds of soldiers from other coalition partners and a few thousand Afghan forces, was the biggest single U.S. operation in the Afghan war so far. Just as an anaconda encircles and crushes its prey, the effort was designed to squeeze Taliban and al Qaeda from the freezing Shah-e-Kot mountains and caves in a stretch of Afghanistan near the Pakistani border.

After two weeks of bombing from the air and attacks and surveillance by infantry patrols in the mountains, it is estimated that 400 to 800 enemy were killed, although Pentagon officials conceded that U.S. forces initially underestimated the number of enemy soldiers it faced.

American and coalition reinforcements were brought in to finish the job.

It also isn't known how many may have escaped to Pakistan, although U.S. and Pakistani forces were trying to block the mountain trails used for centuries by traders and shepherds.

'WE'RE NOT COUNTING BODIES'

The Pentagon, perhaps remembering the credibility problems of body counts during the Vietnam War, won't publicly issue its numbers.

"We may never know" how many were killed, Air Force Brig. Gen. John Rosa, deputy director for current operations at the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters earlier this week. "We're not counting bodies from up here," he said from the podium of the Pentagon briefing room.

The word was the same from the field commanders.

"I don't believe you have heard me or anyone else in our leadership talk about the presence of 1,000 bodies out there, or in fact how many have been recovered," Gen. Tommy Franks, commander of the Afghanistan operation, said Monday at Bagram Air Base. "You know we don't do body counts."

Franks and other U.S. officials, calling Anaconda a tremendous success, have said many enemy troops were killed. U.S. and allied forces continue to search cave complexes in the area for signs of Taliban and al Qaeda presence.

Independent experts say the lack of hard numbers raises some questions.

"Despite few enemy bodies being recovered, U.S. special forces personnel on the ground reported al Qaeda and Taliban losses as high, something that may be difficult to prove as many enemy positions were totally destroyed during the operation," said Center for Defense Information analyst Emily Clark in a report on Anaconda.

COMMANDERS KILLED

The numbers are squishy, and few bodies have been found, so just who was killed?

"Large numbers of second- and third-tier enemy commanders -- the equivalent of a conventional army's majors, lieutenant colonels and colonels -- are also believed killed," Clark added.

She concluded that Anaconda was a success, not least because the al Qaeda and Taliban soldiers apparently stayed and fought, either out of miscalculation or because they couldn't flee as they did last December during a similar mountain operation near Tora Bora.

"Whatever the final enemy body count, Operation Anaconda did enable a concentrated enemy force to be brought to battle and comprehensively defeated at relatively little cost to American and allied forces. As such, the operation can be considered a success in a war where a single decisive victory may prove elusive," she added.

Some Afghan commanders say that many of the al Qaeda and Taliban forces that were targets in Anaconda escaped to Pakistan.

Pike, with GlobalSecurity.org, said the persistent reports of fleeing Taliban and al Qaeda forces are troubling, especially given the powerful electronic surveillance systems used by the Pentagon. However, he said, faulty intelligence is always assumed in battle. "That's normal warfare, even though American technology has vastly improved," he added.

But Pike said it's disingenuous for the administration to say it doesn't conduct body counts when it knows the only way to measure its effectiveness is by tallying the dead, wounded and captured. "They've got a dilemma. Since Vietnam, such counts have gotten a bad name, but there's no other way to keep score," he said.

After Anaconda, sporadic fighting flared this week in eastern Afghanistan and is expected to continue.

President Bush sounded Thursday as if he would welcome another battle like Anaconda. "If they bunch up again in Afghanistan like they did in the Shah-e-Kot mountain range, we'll send our soldiers in there," he said. "The last time they bunched up, they didn't like the results."


Copyright 2002 The Chronicle Publishing Co.