Rockets Fired Into Peacekeepers' Camp

A CH-47 Chinook helicopter is protected by two AH-64 Apache helicopters as they make their way from Bagram air base, near Kabul, to Kandahar, Afghanistan, with soldiers from the 101st Airborne Division returning back from Pperation Mountain Lion, Sunday, April 7, 2002. AP

Assailants fired two rockets Sunday at a compound housing international peacekeepers, and one of them exploded just yards from the complex, a spokesman for the security force said.

A spokesman for the British-led International Security Assistance Force peacekeepers said the attack was likely linked to efforts to destabilize the interim Afghan administration, not al Qaeda or Taliban fighters.

Six months into the war in Afghanistan, attacks on allied forces by remnants of al Qaeda and the Taliban are waning and soldiers roaming the country on surveillance missions are more likely to come across a dogfight than a firefight.

But that doesn't mean enemy fighters have left the country or are less dangerous than initially predicted, a U.S. military spokesman said Sunday.

Before the war began, al Qaeda was depicted as a vicious force that would fight to the death. Yet in recent missions exploring abandoned cave hide-outs — including a 5-day mission to the Pakistani border that ended Saturday — allied soldiers have come across few enemy fighters.

Maj. Bryan Hilferty, an Army spokesman here, said that only indicates that al Qaeda and Taliban fighters have dispersed.

"I think they're still present in the country, and we're actively looking for them. We still have intelligence that they're out there, and we're trying to get them," he said from Bagram air base north of Kabul.

"I'm not sure we misjudged them. I think they're very dangerous," he said.

Hilferty said he was not surprised by the lack of enemy contact in the last month, since Operation Anaconda. Eight American and three pro-U.S. Afghan troops were killed in the fighting.

"I think it's more of a surprise that in Anaconda, that they all stayed. Generally what we've discovered is, if we would attack a group, the senior leaders would slink away immediately, and then middle leaders would slither away, and then junior guys would fight it out to the death. In Anaconda, they all stayed," he said.

His comments came a day after the return of some 500 American soldiers from an area of eastern Afghanistan along the Pakistan border, where they went through caves that had already been identified and removed bags of documents — including some that looked like personnel files, with photos and fingerprints attached. The group did not come under enemy fire.

Hilferty declined to comment on the value of the intelligence found during the mission, part of a series of ongoing reconnaissance excursions around the country known as Operation Mountain Lion.

"It confirms that the Zawar Valley was, at one time certainly, an important place. We'll continue to focus our efforts on eastern Afghanistan," he said.

Afghans in the area told American soldiers that hundreds of al Qaeda and Taliban fighters were just a few miles away — in Pakistan. The issue of allied forces in Pakistan is explosive for the government of Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf because of large support for the Taliban and al Qaeda in some areas, and the allies have said they would not cross the border. Hilferty said that was not a constraint for the allies, as Pakistan was pursuing al Qaeda and Taliban as well.

"I can only tell you the Pakistanis have been a very good partner for us," he said. "They've done everything we've asked them to do."

Some soldiers said the first six months of the war showed that neither side was described accurately in the beginning.

"A lot of people said we were getting in over our heads with the winter and the mountains, but it's actually just like training. I've been surprised it's been so easy," said Lt. Ryan Taylor, a mortar platoon leader in the 101st Airborne Division. "We also learned a lot from Operation Anaconda; we realized they're not the invincible warriors people were saying they were."

Taylor, 24, of Westchester, Pennsylvania., said after six months of intelligence gathering, he expected the fighting to pick up. "Now we know where the enemy is."

Nobody was hurt in the attack on the peacekeepers' camp housing German and Danish troops just after 2:30 a.m. local time, said Flight Lt. Tony Marshall, a spokesman for the British-led International Security Assistance Force peacekeepers.

Marshall said a 107mm Chinese-made rocket flew over the peacekeeping compound and exploded just to the northwest. Another rocket was also seen flying over the compound and an explosion was heard, but peacekeepers had not located the impact site, he said.

He said the attack was likely linked to efforts to destabilize the interim Afghan administration ahead of the loya jirga, a national grand council that will meet in June to select a new government.

Afghan authorities last week arrested at least 160 people on suspicion they were trying to destabilize the government and plot attacks against interim leader Hamid Karzai and the exiled former king, Mohammad Zaher Shah. The king's homecoming is expected later this month.

"Our initial assessment is that rather than a group wishing to target ISAF in its own right, that perhaps this is in some way linked to the current situation in Kabul," Marshall said. "We believe that there is a link with this particular attack."

Marshall would not say what evidence led peacekeepers to believe there was a connection between the attack and the arrests.

Those still in custody from last week are linked to a hard-line Islamic group, Hezb-e-Islami, headed by former Prime Minister Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, officials said. A spokesman for that group denied it was connected with the alleged plot.

Peacekeepers on Sunday were searching the area of the rocket attack for evidence and to try to find where they were fired from.

The German Defense Ministry said it did not believe the rockets were intended to hit the camp.

It was the second incident at the compound, located outside of central Kabul along the main road leading from the capital to the eastern city of Jalalabad, in just over a week.

On March 28, the compound was partially evacuated after a suspicious package was found outside one of the gates. The package was blown up as a precaution but turned out to contain only bricks. At the time, Marshall said peacekeepers were concerned the incident might have been intended to test the international forces' reaction.

The 18-nation, 4,500-member force is responsible for maintaining security in the capital, Kabul. There have been several shooting incidents directed at peacekeepers in recent weeks, but no injuries.

Previously, peacekeepers had said they believed disgruntled northern alliance soldiers or common criminals were behind some of the attacks.
  • John Esterbrook

Comments