GARDEZ, Afghanistan — As U.S. aircraft pressed a bombing campaign against several hundred Al Qaeda and Taliban fighters near here Tuesday, a battlefield commander said that the first of seven Americans killed the previous day survived a fall from a helicopter only to be captured and killed by enemy forces.
The incident was captured on streaming video transmitted from a surveillance aircraft. At a remote site, Maj. Gen. Frank L. Hagenbeck watched helplessly.
The Chinook helicopter had just touched down. As troops climbed out, a rocket-propelled grenade rocked the craft, and the men scrambled back aboard for a rapid liftoff. In the confusion, apparently no one noticed that the attack had sent Navy SEAL Neil C. Roberts of Woodland, Calif., tumbling to the ground.
"We saw him . . . being dragged off by three Al Qaeda men," Hagenbeck said.
By the time rescuers reached Petty Officer 1st Class Roberts, he had been fatally shot.
The firefights intensified Tuesday, with U.S. forces targeting groups as small as three and others larger than 100 in a broad, mountainous region. As additional Afghan and U.S. troops were moved into position to strengthen the offensive, Afghan commanders allied with the U.S. predicted that it was just a matter of time before all resistance to Afghanistan's new interim government was crushed.
"Where can they escape?" asked Taj Mohamad Wardak, governor of Paktia province, where the fighting is taking place. He was referring to the Al Qaeda and Taliban holdouts who have gathered in the mountains. "They are surrounded."
Still, no one knows how long it will take. The offensive has become the largest of the Afghan war and the bloodiest for U.S. troops. On Tuesday, troops involved in the fight and local Afghans described the ongoing battle as extremely intense. Despite initial setbacks that seem to have prompted a more cautious approach, U.S. troops and local Afghans reported that they have killed many more suspected Al Qaeda holdouts in the snow-capped mountains of southeastern Afghanistan than the Pentagon had previously disclosed.
"On Tuesday we caught several hundred of them with [rocket-propelled grenades] and mortars heading toward the fight. We body-slammed them . . . and killed hundreds of those guys," Hagenbeck said.
But U.S. strategists believe that hundreds of Al Qaeda fighters remain, Air Force Brig. Gen. John W. Rosa Jr., deputy director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said at a Pentagon briefing.
About 1,000 U.S. troops have been engaged in the fight against the well-entrenched Taliban and Al Qaeda forces, whose numbers are unclear.
As the assault in the Shahi Kot area began Saturday, the infiltrating troops met more force than expected, compelling a 450-man Afghan unit led by a local commander, Gen. Zia Lodin, to abort its advance toward a key town south of Gardez.
Mortar fire killed two of his men and injured 24, prompting the general to retreat and call for continued air power.
The same day, elements of the 10th Mountain Division were pinned down after taking fire from the town of Marzak. Lt. Col. Frank LaCamera and a force of about 40 troops were caught in a 12-hour battle. Mortar rounds and rocket-propelled grenades landed as close as 15 yards to their position, and 13 U.S. soldiers were wounded.
"I don't think we knew what we were getting into this time, but I think we're beginning to adjust," said Sgt. Maj. Mark Nielsen, 48, of Indianapolis.
Fazlullah, governor of neighboring Lowgar province, said Tuesday that the initial assault may have failed because the Americans had not chosen the most experienced local fighters for the campaign. "Those that they got were fighters for rent, not the pros," he said.
But the recruitment may have been difficult, he said, because in the areas surrounding Shahi Kot, Al Qaeda has proclaimed that anyone supporting foreign forces or the interim Afghanistan government "will be seriously punished."
Fazlullah said he had no doubt of the final outcome. "The Al Qaeda people will fail, because they have no logistical supplies and no way to get more. They will be finished in one week, or at the most, two." But he said he could not rule out that undiscovered enclaves of resistance remain.
Meanwhile, residents of Gardez, a rugged city nestled between majestic mountains, stood on their rooftops in their tunics and turbans to watch the air show.
Evidence of Al Qaeda is easy to find in the area. Upon entering one compound, troops found recoilless rifles, mortar equipment, a state identification card from Saudi Arabia, a Koran and receipts from businesses, including one from a hotel in Mashhad, Iran, near the Afghan border.
"It was unbelievable; in the mud hut where these guys slept, the beds were still warm and tea was still brewing," one U.S. serviceman said. "We also found lots of AK-47 ammunition and medicine along with night vision devices and radios."