TIME: On the Mop-Up
Monday, March 25, 2002
By MICHAEL WARE / SHAH-I-KOT
The attack comes a little before 5 a.m. Sporadic
machine-gun fire has been heard throughout the night,
and in the early hours of the morning, a hilltop
observation post tells the team of U.S. special
forces that there is suspicious movement south of the
perimeter. Then comes small-arms fire, followed by
the whoomp of an incoming rocket-propelled grenade.
Tracers show a stream of outgoing rounds in reply.
Afghan soldiers fighting with the Americans send
their own RPGs into the night. The local Afghan
commander, a short, stern man called Ismael, says
they were plundered from a store of Taliban weapons
he has discovered. His men try to fire illumination
rounds, but two of three pop straight up. "We're
helping the enemy more than we're helping ourselves,"
a U.S. soldier says with a laugh. The special forces
are hamstrung by a lack of information; radio
batteries in the forward positions have drained.
"Walk in a direct line to the hill and head up to the
observation post and get me information on what's out
there," the American commander orders an Afghan
patrol. "And take these batteries."
A band of perhaps 10 al-Qaeda fighters is testing the
position's defenses. After a huddle, the U.S.
soldiers send a small Afghan patrol out to meet the
intruders. Minutes later four special forces follow
the locals to give guidance and backup. Another
commando organizes 10 Afghan soldiers into a quick
reaction force. The Afghans fight al-Qaeda's probing
force about half a mile from the camp, but in the end
the enemy melts away. "They can hide and come back
anytime they want," says a special-forces soldier who
gives his name only as "Oklahoma Chris."
As recently as March 12, Pentagon officials said the
battle of Shah-i-Kot, the bloodiest skirmish in the
five-month war, was winding down. But late last week,
as TIME spent a day and a night with a team of U.S.
special forces and their Afghan allies, it was very
much alive. True, the U.S. force numbers are way down
from the 1,000 or more who fought in the battle's
first stage, and the bombing, though occasionally
heavy, does not match the scale seen two weeks ago.
But let there be no doubt: the enemy is still there,
and he is resourceful. "Now it's hard-core guerrilla
warfare," says a special-forces soldier. Shah-i-Kot
seems made for this kind of fighting. After two weeks
of battle, the mountainsides are scarred black;
vehicles, barely recognizable, litter the trails. But
on the rises and in the lees of this mountain
redoubt, there is still movement. Columns of Afghan
troops roll forward and then halt, fanning out
soldiers as figures scarper away into the cover of
the rocks ahead.
Those fighters sometimes seem to be the only things
that move. In Shah-i-Kot you will rarely find a goat
or a donkey or even a dog. Clusters of abandoned or
destroyed mud-brick houses stand silent. Just a few
weeks ago, these high-walled settlements were home to
al-Qaeda fighters and their families. Now they look
like a kind of Dresden transferred to a tiny,
medieval world. In the village of Sarkhankhel,
charred headstones are all that remain of many
houses; crumbled walls carpet the ground. It's as
though a finger of retribution reached from the sky
and pointed to every house, one by one by one. But
the bombs didn't take all who lived here. "We've
searched many structures," says Oklahoma Chris, "and
there is evidence of unhurried packing. Nothing was
In this hostile terrain, American and allied forces
are still taking fire. Together with the Afghans whom
they have trained, they crawl up steep ridges to
bunkers whose ragged inhabitants refuse to give in,
or go after foes slithering away toward the rocks.
Small teams of about a dozen commandos are
establishing outposts deep in enemy territory,
working with Afghan units near 120 strong. In
daylight, movement is relatively easy, but the night
is more dangerous. Perimeters are set around open
camps and, save for the unseen cover from the air,
it's a long, lonely wait for whatever may come.
Late in the afternoon on March 14, 20 Afghan troops
are led by an American soldier in an attack on a
small cave atop a ridge less than 800 yds. from their
camp. Through telescopic sights al-Qaeda fighters can
be seen scurrying along the rise. As a bomber
approaches, the human silhouettes vanish. Explosions
rip the earth, and one plane is replaced by another
in an aerial tag team; at dusk the smoky white
skywriting burns to an incandescent orange. But as so
often happens in this war, no kills are recorded or
prisoners taken. With light fading, the special
forces set Afghan sentries. "We want RPGs there,
there and there," says an American officer. In twos
and threes the local soldiers traipse out to their
positions, carting machine guns and small duffel
bags. Those not on duty mingle around canvas tents;
one group is ordered to put "that goddam fire out."
The U.S. soldiers don night-vision goggles, and the
Afghans pin squares of tape to their beanies to
identify themselves as friendlies--and then wait
nervously for those who are nothing of the kind.
The U.S. forces have learned to respect their
adversaries. "Small-sized teams can do a lot of
damage," says special-forces soldier "Alabama Chris,"
wearing a Crimson Tide cap with his camouflage pants.
The enemy can slip away easily: surrounding
Shah-i-Kot are countless villages that offer succor
to al-Qaeda fighters. "Part of the focus is to seal
off their supply routes, or what we call rat lines,"
says Alabama Chris. That isn't easy. Covert supply
routes between villages run along dried-up creeks.
Cave entrances to the bunkers can be almost
impossible to detect. Subterranean complexes have
been discovered between buildings in the middle of
villages. The arsenal on hand is formidable. "If it's
man portable or can be carried over the mountains on
donkey, then most likely they've got it," says
Oklahoma Chris. South of the valley, Afghan forces
trained by the Americans have set up roadblocks to
prevent fighters' escaping over the mountains to
Pakistan. Balaclava-clad soldiers search every
vehicle and passenger while the barrels of heavy
machine guns and RPGS poke through windows. "We
intend to make sure none of them escape," local
warlord Pacha Khan Zadran tells TIME.
That's a fine sentiment. But it begs a question: How
many al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters survived the
battle of Shah-i-Kot to fight another day? The
Pentagon has boasted of hundreds dead, but they
aren't evident in the valley. In Sarkhankhel, only
three bodies are visible. Farther upstream, another
lies in pieces in a garden. The special forces are
cagey about numbers. "Even if we did have them," says
a soldier, "we wouldn't be authorized to disclose
them." But the Americans insist that the death toll
is high. "I've seen them," says Alabama Chris, of
al-Qaeda corpses. "I can definitely corroborate that
what we've done in the valley has been effective." At
the company HQ, another American commando reflects
for a while about how many dead al-Qaeda fighters he
has seen. "All I can say," he muses, "is that
business has been good." That may be; but this
business isn't over.