TORA BORA, Spin Mountains, eastern Afghanistan – “War is evil. Who said that war is holy? War is unholy.” The anonymous Pashtun mujahideen couldn’t possibly be in a more spectacular setting: crouching, holding his prized Kalashnikov, contemplating the majestic Spin (White) Mountains on the horizon, while a B-52 circles slowly overhead in the crisp blue sky, about to unload its lethal heavy metal luggage.
The setting is Tora Bora, a South Pacific-sounding, mountainous Pashtun area in Nangarhar province. For some this is the end game, for others just the beginning of the real hunt for Osama bin Laden and Al-Qaeda Arabs by Afghan mujahideen and the United States and its allies.
The theatre of war can be contemplated in a 180-degree arc from a natural stage: the desert plateau of Bamo Khel. The mujahideen have positioned three T-55 tanks on the plateau. Downhill, there is a valley around a dry riverbed, close to the village of Melawa. On the road skirting Melawa, and across the surrounding hills, the mujahideen have positioned another 10 tanks. Beyond the valley are three superimposed layers of mountains. Al-Qaeda positions are on top of the second range of mountains.
This is the area known as Tora Bora – under which there is a complex network of caves, some natural, some man-made. The rock face is now subjected to massive B-52 bombing. Beyond the highest layer of mountains – which include some 4,000-meter-plus eastern Afghan versions of Mont Blanc in the Alps – are the tribal areas of Pakistan: some locals say that they can be reached only after taking an 80-kilometer circuit around the mountains.
We had finally arrived face-to-face with the bombing of Tora Bora, thanks to Hazrat Ali – known in Jalalabad about 35 miles to the northeast as the “chief of law and order.” Commander Ali, a Pachi – a fierce Pashtun subtribe with its own dialect and its own code of fighting – ordered the organization overnight of an armed convoy to take some reporters from Jalalabad to the frontline. The caravan of Toyota pick-ups, driven by Pashtun adrenalin junkies with the mental age of 10-year-olds, rumbled off the next morning through dusty Pashtun villages.
Osama bin Laden is said to have last been seen by villagers around Tora Bora last weekend. Bin Laden knows the area extremely well: he fought some of his first 1980s mujahideen battles in this terrain. Tora Bora has also been a center of operations for mujahideen stalwarts Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and Younous Khalis.
Afghan sources stress that this has been the most well-organized area of jihad operations for the past 25 years. In characteristically evasive Afghan fashion, though, nobody from Jalalabad to Tora Bora is able to confirm the whereabouts of bin Laden. Nevertheless, the mujahideen keep insisting that they have cut Al-Qaeda’s main supply route from Pakistan – which originates in the tribal city of Parachinar.
Hazrat Ali is an extremely optimistic commander. Just like bin Laden, he knows the area very well: he fought against the Soviets based in these caves. He believes that the Tora Bora battle “could take at least two weeks or more.” He is absolutely sure that “the coming snow will create more problems for them, not for us, because they won’t be able to get oil or food.”
Ali is part of the crucial post-Taliban triangle of power in Jalalabad. Haji Abdul Qadir, the governor of Nangarhar province, has just returned from Bonn, where he was instrumental in securing the post of new de facto Afghan prime minister for the next six months for Pashtun Hamid Karzai. Haji Zaman is the military chief of the province: he was the acting governor in the absence of Haji Qadir. Hazrat Ali is the “chief of law and order.” There is tremendous competition between Zaman and Ali to deliver the best soundbites on global TV.
The Eastern Shura – which comprises the provisional governments of Nangarhar, Laghman, Kunar and Kapisa provinces – did ask the Arabs around Tora Bora to surrender – to no avail. The Shura may have been willing to give safe passage to the Arabs, according to sources in Jalalabad. But Hazrat Ali is adamant, “Our Shura simply cannot keep them.” The Arabs can surrender, escape or die in battle as shaheeds (martyrs), he says. Villagers in Gudara still swear that “the Arabs are heroes of Islam” – and they have vowed to protect them. But now even the Eastern Shura has abandoned the Arabs.
On the frontline, two commanders – Aum Shah Hashimi and Sorab Khan – add a little nuance to Hazrat Ali’s spin. They say that “half of the Tora Bora is under our control, the other half under Al-Qaeda. They are on top of the mountains, shelling us.” According to the commanders, Al-Qaeda operatives are basically firing mortars down on the valley. The mujahideen have deployed around 600 men to the frontline – with another 1,200 in a second line of attack. They don’t know for sure how many Arabs are hidden in the mountains: it could be anything between 600 and 1,500. Hazrat Ali spoke of at least 600 hardcore Chechen fighters.
The mujahideen insist that at least 10 “important” Al-Qaeda Arabs have died in the past few days. But it’s absolutely impossible to confirm the fate of “The Surgeon,” top Al-Qaeda mastermind Ayman Al Zawahiri, who “might” have been wounded. The mujahideen insist that the Arabs are totally surrounded. But a closer look at the topography reveals that there are many possible escape routes – though extremely laborious, according to locals from Gudara and Melawa.
Commander Hashimi himself cannot tell how long will it take to extricate or even annihilate the Arabs. According to Hashimi, there is no coordination between B-52 bombing and tanks firing. But the cumulative effect this past few days has been nothing less than impressive, by Afghan standards: the tanks shot 14 shells, while a B-52 unloaded its massive bombs three times. Frightened American reporters – afraid that the convoy might be pinpointed as a target – were frantically asking their bureaus to call the Pentagon.
During the night, the B-52 bombing is boosted by F-16 raids. The pace is almost relentless. But Pakistani geologists have said many times that the Spin Mountains are the real thing – as far as hard rock is concerned: practically impenetrable.
Between two tank blasts, a mujahideen did not mince his words when approached by a loud and lost-in-the-maze American reporter, “We are not fighting for a reward from America. We are fighting to get rid of invaders,” in reference to the US$25 million tag on bin Laden’s head. Another mujahideen, when asked about his feelings on fighting other Muslims – bin Laden and Al-Qaeda – went straight to the point, “They are mujahideen. But they should go back to their country. We have a lot of mujahideen.”
The Pashtun mujahideen admit no casualties for the moment – except a maximum of “five or six” wounded in the valley. On the base of a recently-captured hill, they have started concentrating what they describe as “heavy weapons” – mostly rocket launchers and heavy machine guns, plus a few tanks, “some captured from Al-Qaeda.” And more Pachi Hazrat Ali reinforcements – about 200 men in pick-ups – have poured in in the past day.
The possible end game – or beginning of the end game – in Tora Bora does not hide the fact that Afghanistan under the United Front is technically a lawless state. Our small group of journalists only braved the bandit-infested road from Kabul to Jalalabad – via the extremely tricky stretch in ultra-pro-Taliban Sarobi – because we were able to tag along with the mini-convoy of Jalalabad mayor Abdul Ghaffar. He traveled with 25 heavily-armed men in Toyota pick-ups – rocket launchers and grenade launchers included. Ghaffar has been mayor only since the Taliban abandoned Jalalabad in mid-November. In the two days that he spent in Kabul he met President Burhanuddin Rabbani – who badly needed Pashtun support for his bid for the leadership council. He also met hardcore Saudi Wahabbi-supported Professor Abdul Rasul Sayaf. But the Northern Alliance’s military commander Mohammad Fahim snubbed him.
In the end, Rabbani got nothing in Bonn – while Fahim kept his post as defense minister and Dr Abdullah Abdullah kept his post as foreign minister. Pashtuns in Jalalabad were jubilant with the prospect of moderate Pashtun Hamiz Karzai as the de facto prime minister for the next six months. The Taliban were nowhere to be seen – or heard.
Meanwhile, in remote Tora Bora, nobody can ascertain the number of dead Arabs. Al-Qaeda is “still firing” – as a mujahideen put it. The bombing is relentless. And bin Laden has disappeared. End game? Not yet.