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March 2-13, 2002: Taliban and Al-Qaeda Forces Evade Encirclement Again

US troops investigate two dead bodies on March 17, 2002, as Operation Anaconda comes to a close.US troops investigate two dead bodies on March 17, 2002, as Operation Anaconda comes to a close. [Source: Joe Raedle/ Reuters]The US launches Operation Anaconda, a major offensive in Shah-i-Kot valley, near the town of Gardez, Afghanistan. About 2,000 US and allied soldiers attack a Taliban and al-Qaeda stronghold in the valley. The goal is to surround and cut off the Taliban and al-Qaeda from being able to retreat into Pakistan. Officially, the operation is hailed as an easy victory. For instance, Gen. Tommy Franks calls the operation “an unqualified and absolute success.” [Radio Free Europe, 3/20/2002] A Pentagon spokesperson calls the operation “a great success,” and says that of the hundreds or even thousands of enemy fighters trapped in the valley,“less than 100 escaped.” [New York Times, 3/14/2002] Up to 800 Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters are reported killed. [New York Times, 3/14/2002]
Unexpected Resistance - However, other accounts paint a different picture. The operation runs into unexpected resistance from the start, and eight US soldiers and a small number of allied Afghan fighters are killed in the first few days. The London Times later notes, “what was to have been a two-day operation stretched to 12.” Australian special forces troops who took part later say the operation was botched. “They blamed much of the problem on inadequate US air power, poor intelligence, and faulty technology.” [Radio Free Europe, 3/20/2002; London Times, 6/18/2002]
Militants Able to Escape - It appears that, as in Tora Bora, Afghan warlord armies supervised by a small number of US special forces, were given the key task of cutting off escape routes. At least one of the warlords involved had tricked the US military earlier in the war. “Although [Afghan] commanders insisted from the start of the campaign that the slopes were surrounded, [one Afghan commander] admitted that there had been at least one escape route” left open. The Guardian notes that “US troops spent weeks planning the attack on Shah-i-Kot, training and arming Afghan soldiers to prevent a repeat of the battle at Tora Bora,” but nonetheless, “nearly all the Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters appeared to have fled the area.” [Washington Post, 3/4/2002; Guardian, 3/15/2002] Most flee across the border into Pakistan (see December 2001-Spring 2002). The New York Times even reported that “some participants… said the Taliban had more or less come and gone as they pleased, visiting villagers in nearby towns.” [New York Times, 3/14/2002] One captured Taliban soldier who fought in the battle later claims that bin Laden made a brief personal appearance to rally his troops. [Newsweek, 8/11/2002] Only about 20 prisoners are captured and fewer than 20 bodies are found. [New York Times, 3/14/2002; New York Times, 3/18/2002] After retreating, the Taliban and al-Qaeda will change strategies and no longer attempt to congregate in Afghanistan in large numbers.

Entity Tags: Al-Qaeda, United States, Thomas Franks, Osama bin Laden, Taliban

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, War in Afghanistan

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