BAGRAM, Afghanistan – U.S. forces came closer to the tail end of Operation Anaconda Sunday, with hundreds of weary U.S. soldiers descending from the Afghan mountains after a grueling eight-day battle against enemy holdouts.
But Anaconda hasn't entirely shed its skin — U.S. bombers pounded the caves where the remaining fighters were hiding and an Afghan commander said he expected a final push within two days.
The Army said ground fighting was winding down but that Operation Anaconda would continue until the last of the Al Qaeda 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 Qaeda 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 Qaeda 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.
"They were defeated by these bombs," Ismail said of the Al Qaeda and Taliban foes.
Ismail said that in the past two days, Australian commandos and vehicles had been dropped into the battle area, presumably to search for small pockets of Al Qaeda members who might try to slip away through narrow gorges.
In Tampa, Fla., Col. Rick Thomas, a spokesman at Central Command headquarters, said the troops returning to Bagram base might be moved to a different part of the battlefield. He said ground fighting had subsided as an estimated 200 remaining Al Qaeda and Taliban members hunkered down in remote caves.
One of the U.S. soldiers returning to Bagram, 2nd Lt. Christopher Blaha, 24, of Great Neck, N.Y., said he had lost two friends in the Sept. 11 terrorism attacks, including his best friend Andrew Stergiopoulos, 23, an employee of the bond-trading firm Cantor Fitzgerald at the World Trade Center.
He said he wrote Stergiopoulos's name on every one of his grenades.
"There was definitely a vindictive side," Blaha said upon returning from the front. "I can go back and tell his family everything we did."
The leader of Afghanistan's interim government, Hamid Karzai, sent up to 1,000 additional troops to the region, which he called the "last main base" of Al Qaeda and Taliban in Afghanistan. He acknowledged, however, that there are areas where smaller groups are likely operating.
"We will fight terrorism until we are absolutely sure that they are not there to threaten anybody anywhere in the world," Karzai said.
On Saturday, Afghan fighters told The Associated Press that enemy forces had taken refuge in two caves and were running out of ammunition. However, Al Qaeda had ringed the area with land mines, and heavy clouds and snow had made low-level, pinpoint bombing difficult.
Hilferty said some enemy fighters had been captured and were being interrogated, but he declined to say how many.
One captured Arab fighter claimed other Arabs, Tajiks and Uzbeks were still in the caves and that the tunnels had collapsed in the bombing, Afghan intelligence officials said on condition of anonymity.
U.S. troops arriving in Bagram said they had not expected to find so many Taliban and Al Qaeda forces waiting for them when they moved into the rugged mountains of Paktia province on March 2.
The soldiers were unprepared for the subfreezing temperatures at 10,000 feet — some said they hadn't even brought sleeping bags. They spoke of staying awake at night and sleeping by day when it was warmer.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.