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Afghan Forces Near Shahi Kot For Projected Last-Stage Battle

By John Daniszewski

and Geoffrey Mohan

Hardened Afghan soldiers with tanks, rocket launchers and mortars advanced to the edge of the Shahi Kot valley on Monday, vowing to clean out nests of al-Qaida and Taliban fighters who may still be lurking in its labyrinth of caves despite more than a week of aerial bombing and firefights with U.S. troops.

No one knows how many enemy fighters may still be in the valley after the U.S.-led onslaught, but the newly arriving Afghan forces clearly expected danger as they prepared to enter an area that many believe is the last stronghold of al-Qaida and the Taliban in eastern Afghanistan.

In addition to Afghan warriors, U.S. and Australian special forces were still operating in the area. However, the bulk of regular U.S. troops were being flown back to Bagram air base about 125 miles north of the fighting, satisfied that the heaviest fighting was over.

The long reinforcement column, which lumbered out of the dusty provincial capital of Gardez about 7 a.m., consisted of 12 tanks, other military equipment and about 500 troops, said Abdul Matin, an Afghan brigade commander.

Under the command of a former Northern Alliance general, Gul Hydar, who was sent to Gardez with 1,000 troops last Friday at the order of the Afghan Defense Ministry in Kabul, the capital, the soldiers were to augment and reinforce a U.S.-trained Afghan force led by Gen. Zia Lodin, which has been in the fighting since the campaign was launched March 2.

The column moved slowly over the bumpy, rutted, packed-earth road out of Gardez. Atop their tanks, witnesses said, soldiers smiled and waved their weapons.

Matin said the arrival of the column from Kabul was “very important” for Afghanistan’s interim government, led by Prime Minister Hamid Karzai, because it represented the first steps toward creating new national army. “Anywhere in the country where there is trouble, forces should be sent out by the Defense Ministry to help,” he said.

By about 6 p.m., Hydar’s forces had taken up positions on Shahi Kot hill at the entrance to the valley, said Matin.

He described the valley as very long with four or five entrances. When entering the valley, the Afghan force will have to contend with whatever enemy hide-outs have not yet been detected and bombed, as well as with land mines and booby traps laid by al-Qaida and Taliban fighters.

Having visited the caves during his days as a moujahedeen fighter against the Russians, Matin said it was good that Afghans would do the close-in dirty work of seeking the last hiding places. “The pathways to the caves are very hard to see for the Americans, and the caves themselves are labyrinthine,” he said.

Matin said he expects the final battle for Shahi Kot to commence within two or three days.