BAGRAM, Afghanistan – All U.S. and Canadian forces have withdrawn from the eastern Shah-e-Kot Valley where the biggest U.S.-led ground offensive of the war in Afghanistan took place earlier this month, a U.S. military official said Tuesday.
Maj. Gen. Frank L. Hagenbeck, commander of all coalition troops in Afghanistan, said that while Operation Anaconda was over, Al Qaeda and Taliban would be actively pursued throughout Afghanistan.
"When we find pockets of resistance, we'll go after them. If they choose to mass in large groups like they did here in Shah-e-Kot, then you'll see other conventional operations on this scale. If they choose to stay in small numbers, then you will see smaller scale operations," Hagenbeck said at Bagram air base north of Kabul.
On Monday, Gen. Tommy Franks, chief of the U.S. military's Central Command, called the operation "an unqualified and absolute success" despite claims by Afghan allies that most of the enemy fighters got away.
Britain announced Monday that it will send up to 1,700 troops to Afghanistan to help U.S. forces in future operations against Al Qaeda and the Taliban.
In Washington, meanwhile, a senior Pentagon official said U.S. forces in eastern Afghanistan attacked a convoy of three vehicles believed to be trying to ferry Al Qaeda fighters out of the Shah-e-Kot Valley area.
The attack on Sunday killed 16 enemy fighters and wounded one, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. One person was detained. There were no American casualties, the official said.
Many details were unclear, including whether the convoy was attacked by air as well as ground forces.
Later, a separate U.S.-led operation in that area resulted in the capturing of an unknown number of suspected Al Qaeda fighters, one officer said. No Americans were wounded in that engagement, either, but the officer said he did not immediately have other details.
Operation Anaconda was launched March 2 to clear Al Qaeda and Taliban fighters from the Shah-e-Kot valley in Paktia province. Al Qaeda and Taliban positions fell last week, but some of the Afghan commanders fighting alongside the Americans believe most of the fighters escaped.
One senior Afghan leader, Commander Abdullah, said that the enemy fighters fled during the heavy U.S. air bombardment. Another commander Abdul Wali Zardran, said that coalition forces did not wipe out Al Qaeda's fighters.
"Americans don't listen to anyone," Zardran said. "They do what they want. Most people escaped. You can't call that a success."
Franks, who arrived here to meet U.S. commanders and award Bronze Star medals, predicted the operation would end within 12 hours. But the overall mission in Afghanistan — to wipe out Al Qaeda and their Afghan Taliban allies — would continue.
"We still have additional work to do," Franks said during a news conference at Bagram air base north of Kabul. "If you talk to anyone of these soldiers, they'll tell you they are here to do that work."
Franks refused to speculate on the number of enemy fighters who may have been killed in Operation Anaconda but insisted the area "is a very different place" than it was when the operation began.
He refused to discuss the next stage in the U.S.-led fight against Al Qaeda and Taliban holdouts but said, "I believe that future operations may well be the size of Anaconda."
British Defense Secretary Geoff Hoon said Britain will deploy a full infantry battle group including Royal Marines commandos in Afghanistan in its largest military deployment for combat operations since the Persian Gulf war.
Hoon said the United States had requested Britain join future operations against Al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan.
"This group will join a U.S.-led brigade — forming a potent force ready to undertake such operations," he told the House of Commons.
"This a powerful force — total up to 1,700 strong," he said.
Hoon said the British troops would go initially to Bagram, with the first members arriving within days, and would be ready to begin offensive operations by mid-April.
In recent days, coalition forces have examined 30 caves, finding ammunition, clothing, supplies and sensitive documents, said Capt. Steven O'Connor, spokesman for the 10th Mountain Division.
He said there had been no contact with enemy fighters in the last day.
Before meeting with reporters, Franks awarded Bronze Star medals to five U.S. service members.
Franks pinned the Bronze Star with valor on Sgt. 1st Class Michael A. Peterson, 37, of Tawas City, Mich., and Staff Sgt. Randel J. Perez, 30, of San Benito, Texas. He also gave out Bronze Stars for achievement to Staff Sgt. Dwayne L. Simms, 37, of the Brooklyn borough of the New York City, and Staff Sgt. David A. Hruban, 26, of Park Ridge, Ill. A fifth man, Spc. James D. Brossoie, also received a Bronze Star for valor but was sick and unable to attend the ceremony. His hometown was not immediately available.