Anaconda Hit Middle Al Qaeda Leadership

Operation Anaconda killed hundreds of enemy troops and took out "a chunk of irreplaceable Al Qaeda middle-level leadership," the U.S. commander of the battle said Tuesday in an exclusive interview with Fox News.

"We are convinced that we killed hundreds of Al Qaeda and Taliban, and we have more and more evidence of that every day," said Maj. Gen. Frank L. Hagenbeck, commander of the 10th Mountain Division and all ground forces in Afghanistan.

But that doesn't mean the fighting is over, Hagenbeck said.

"Al Qaeda is [a] very determined, well-financed and well-trained enemy," the general said. "I think they’re going to take every step they can take to regroup and regenerate."

The fate of the top-level Al Qaeda leadership, including Usama bin Laden, remains unclear. Local villagers and some lower-level Afghan commanders in the Khost area have reportedly seen bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman Al-Zawahiri, alive and moving through the region in the past week.

These reports could not be confirmed by either U.S. or official Afghan sources. Local commanders are known to have their own motives for reporting such sightings, which have often turned out to be false.

Pentagon officials said on Tuesday they have no information to corroborate the bin Laden sightings.

Eight U.S. servicemen were killed during the fighting in Operation Anaconda, Hagenbeck noted, and all 7,000 U.S. soldiers deployed across Afghanistan are potential targets for enemy operatives.

"From car bombs to suicide bombers, to indirect attacks with mortars, I think they're looking for every place we have U.S. and coalition forces," he said.

In the near term, at least, the American and coalition response to these attacks will be the same: respond with small-level operations, Hagenbeck said. But with some 1,700 new British combat troops arriving, another Anaconda-scale operation cannot be ruled out.

The highly trained British forces "bring a lot of capability with them," said Hagenbeck. "This gives us the opportunity in what we call 'multiple and simultaneous.'"

Coalition forces will be well equipped to deal with any Al Qaeda and Taliban forces who may come back into Afghanistan from Pakistan.

"We are prepared and we have contingencies that exist. Were the enemy to present itself, we would be able to respond," Hagenbeck warned.

On another subject, the general spoke warmly of the young men and women in the U.S. forces who are putting their lives on the line during the Afghan campaign.

"These soldiers, airmen and Marines have been remarkable." he said. "They have done more than I expected from them, and I had very high expectations. They know why we are here."

Some 10th Mountain battalions will be rotated out in the coming weeks. But Hagenbeck said U.S. troops will always be part of the mission here and, in his words, will stay until the job is done.

"I firmly believe we have the upper hand, that we have the momentum," he said. "We're going into this with our eyes wide open. We're going to fight this on our terms."