What We Learned in Shah-i-Kot

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US Army 10th Mountain soldiers direct mortar fire on enemy positions

The battle of Shah-i-Kot is over, but its lessons are that America's military commitment in Afghanistan may last longer, and be more extensive and dangerous than expected. U.S. and allied forces had by Wednesday secured control of the valley that had seen the biggest battle of the Afghan campaign, in which eight American soldiers and scores of enemy personnel died.

Operation Anaconda's primary success was in destroying a sanctuary in which Taliban and al-Qaeda forces had regrouped. Still, U.S. and allied commanders agreed the fight is far from over. And the identity and tactics of the enemy forces, the performance of the Afghan allies, and the response of the locals to the battle all bear important clues to future challenges facing U.S. military operations in Afghanistan.

Estimates of the enemy casualty count vary wildly in a range between 100 and 500, and nobody's produced the bodies or counted them. But the more important question may be their identities. It was initially believed that the enemy force numbered no more than 500, and comprised fewer than 100 al-Qaeda personnel who had joined up with local fighters loyal to unrepentant Taliban commander Saifur Rahman Mansoor in his home base. Later, U.S. commanders were talking about an al-Qaeda force numbering more than 1,000. Reports from the battlefield certainly confirm the presence of a substantial number of Chechen, Uzbek and Arab fighters, but many of those wounded and captured by the allies were Afghans.

As the battle began, the enemy forces in Shah-i-Kot were reinforced from the surrounding areas. Many may have been al-Qaeda fighters who'd gone to ground in the area, but local lore had it that this was primarily a Taliban force, reinforced by local sympathizers from Pashtun communities on both sides of the Afghan-Pakistan border. And the enemy had help: U.S. and allied forces were forced to guard their backs in the battle zone against harassment by locals sympathetic to those holed up in the mountain fortress.

The Pashtun provinces of southeastern Afghanistan remain strongholds of Taliban support, and are gripped by ongoing power struggles between rival warlords. They regard with suspicion the interim government of Hamid Karzai, which is dominated by the ethnic Tajiks of the Northern Alliance. And that has prompted the Taliban and al-Qaeda to exploit Pashtun resentment in an effort to create a favorable climate for a new guerrilla war against the U.S. and its allies. Reports from the area cite mass distribution of pro-bin Laden pamphlets in the region, urging Afghans to fight the government in Kabul and its U.S. backers. And local warlord rivalries appear to have played a role in determining which warlords sent their troops to fight alongside the Americans at Shah-i-Kot.

Operation Anaconda also produced some significant shifts in the U.S. approach to battle in Afghanistan. Until now, the "Afghanistan model" in Washington parlance had involved small numbers of U.S. special forces on the ground directing awesome U.S. air power and Afghan proxy infantry. That model proved effective in putting the Taliban to flight from Afghanistan's major cities. It was less successful in last December's standoff at Tora Bora, where thousands of al Qaeda-linked fighters appear to have escaped what had been presented as a ring of steel.

At Shah-i-Kot, the U.S. elected to create its own ring of steel, using the U.S. Tenth Mountain Division, the 101st Airborne and an assortment of special forces units sent by European NATO allies, Canada and Australia to cut off lines of retreat. That gave the U.S. a more committed fighting force on the ground, and when the Afghans folded under fire on the western approaches to Shah-i-Kot, U.S. commanders moved their own men into the breach. An operation in which Afghan forces were to have been supported by the U.S. quickly turned into a U.S. operation supported by the Afghans.

Intelligence and combat support from local Afghan forces is seldom entirely free of the axe-grinding of local warlords, and Afghan observers believe that may have played a role both in the underestimation of the enemy's strength at Shah-i-Kot and in the performance of the Afghan forces initially deployed. Question marks over the reliability of local Pashtun militias were underscored by the Afghan government's decision midway through the battle to reinforce the allied contingent with 1,000 ethnic Tajik fighters from the Northern Alliance. But despite their solid battlefield performance, the Tajiks' presence has fueled ethnic resentment among the locals, even those fighting alongside the U.S. Pro-government Pashtun commanders in nearby Gardez have called for the Tajiks to be withdrawn, some saying their men would rather have the Taliban and al-Qaeda on their turf than the Northern Alliance.

The discord suggests that the ongoing campaign in Afghanistan runs the risk of exacerbating ethnic tensions and warlord rivalries, which, in turn, work to the enemy's advantage. Shah-i-Kot has been the biggest battle of the war so far, but it's unlikely to be the last. Locals suspect that a number — U.S. commanders say it's less than 100 — of al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters escaped Shah-i-Kot, and the Pentagon has warned that numerous pockets of al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters are dotted across southern Afghanistan. And with ethnic tensions on the rise, even in the fragile government of Hamid Karzai, the enemy is looking to turn up the heat in the spring. That suggests chances of an early departure by U.S. forces are diminishing, and the line between hunting al-Qaeda and ensuring the security of Karzai's government may begin to blur. Shah-i-Kot may be another reminder of why Afghanistan is not famous for short wars.