Franks: Pitched Battle Rages in Tora Bora Valleys
By Linda Kozaryn
National Guard Bureau
WASHINGTON, Dec. 14, 2001 The United States won't be satisfied until the cancerous core of terrorism is cut out of Afghanistan, Army Gen. Tommy Franks told reporters here and in Tampa, Fla. "As long as we have pockets of Al Qaeda or Taliban resisting any remnants of the terrorist network it won't be over," he said. "It's going to take months to go through the detainees we have, to ensure ourselves that we have done what our president asked us to do and what the world asked this coalition to do. And that is to destroy this network inside Afghanistan."
During a 40-minute video-conference with reporters at U.S. Central Command headquarters in Tampa, Fla., and at the Pentagon in Washington, the operational commander said the fighting in the Jalalabad and Tora Bora areas is far from over.
U.S. Special Operations forces and opposition forces are in the "midst of (a) pitched battle" in the Tora Bora area, Franks said. "They've made steady progress up to this point. It's very dangerous work, and we have a lot left to do."
Opposition groups are wielding Kalashnikov rifles, rocket- propelled grenades and have some tanks, while U.S. forces are equipped mostly with small arms. But, "they provide the ability to leverage an awful lot of air power," Franks said.
U.S. air forces have dropped "earth-penetrating bombs," known as Joint Direct Attack Munitions, as well as laser- guided bombs, he said. They've also dropped BLU-82s, a 15,000-pound munition known as the Daisy Cutter.
The number of enemy forces in the area may be anywhere from 300 to 1,000. "It could be more, it might be less," Franks said. "It's very difficult in that kind of terrain to know exactly how many forces we are facing."
Opposition forces have taken some Al Qaeda prisoners in this fight and have removed documents and other evidence, he said. No Al Qaeda prisoners have been turned over to U.S. authorities, however, he added.
Franks described the Tora Bora area south of Jalalabad as having two valleys running north and south. In the South, Pakistani forces are providing assistance on the routes out of Afghanistan into Pakistan. Opposition forces are moving north and south from Jalalabad forming "a hammer and an anvil," Franks said.
Opposition forces are also on the western and eastern sides, he said. Opposition leaders on the ground believe the majority of the Al Qaeda force is "contained."
This does not mean that this cordon is not porous and no one can escape, Franks explained. "This is really rough, mountainous country, but it does mean that the view of those on the ground is that there is containment of this Al Qaeda force," he said.
Opposition groups and U.S. forces are making progress despite the fact that the terrain tends to be more vertical than horizontal, the general noted. "While these forces may be moving only one or two kilometers in a given day, that is a substantial distance based on how much they're moving 'up' or 'down' while they're doing that."
It's difficult to say when the work will be finished, he stressed. "This is a reasonably large area, and it has been developed over time as a substantial cave and tunnel fortress-style complex."
U.S. formations don't count bodies, Franks said, but "a lot of people have lost their lives in these valleys." Although he did not discount the possibility, the general said he had received no reports that U.S. service members had been injured in the fight.
To the south of Tora Bora, opposition forces have moved into Kandahar and U.S. Marines now occupy the Kandahar airport, Franks said. It will be reopened for staging the ongoing combat operations and to create a hub for delivering humanitarian assistance.
U.S. Special Operations forces are working with opposition forces in both areas, he noted. They gain institutional awareness and help gather documents and other information left behind by the terrorists.
In some cases, Special Ops troops have gone on house-to- house and building-to-building searches with the opposition groups. "We go out of our way to deliberately go to known and suspected Al Qaeda hideouts, safehouses and sites, to go through all of the materials and do a thorough search for documents," Franks said.
Pockets of Taliban remain in several places inside Afghanistan. Franks said U.S. military officials suspect there are some pockets of resistance in and around Kandahar, as well as residual Taliban elements northwest of that city.
As to Osama bin Laden's whereabouts, Franks stated, "We don't know what we don't know. One receives all sorts of information indicating perhaps UBL remains in the Tora Bora area, perhaps in Pakistan. We simply don't know where he is.
"The last lead we had was that he was in the Kandahar region," he noted. "We're simply looking for him, and we're going to keep looking for him as long as it takes."
Some terrorist and Taliban leaders may have been killed in the course of the fighting, Franks said. Others may be spread out either alone or in twos or threes.
A plan is in place, he said, for what U.S. officials would do if bin Laden or any other Al Qaeda or Taliban leaders are captured and turned over to U.S. authorities. Detainees could be kept inside Afghanistan at Forward Operating Base Rhino or at the Kandahar airport. Detainees might also be moved offshore to a U.S. ship for interrogation, Franks said.
"I won't tell you which one of those courses we might take, " the commander said. "But in each case, the people we come across would be held in one of those places."
John Walker, the 20-year-old U.S. citizen found imprisoned among Taliban forces, has been moved from Afghanistan to the USS Peleliu, the general said, where he is safe and being well cared for.
"We will continue to control him on the Peleliu until the determination is made regarding whether we handle him within the military community or whether he is handled on the civilian side," Franks said. "That determination has not yet been made."