TORA BORA, White Mountains, eastern Afghanistan – “Omar Omar.” Silence. “Omar Omar.” Radio cackle barely interferes with the bang of another set of cluster bombs showered from an F-16 over the mountains of Tora Bora – less than four miles away. But the message is merciless: “Kandahar has fallen” – repeats commander Ali Shah, enveloped in his light-gray blanket. This is the way the Taliban ends: not with a bang, but a whimper. This is the way the last frontier in the New Afghan War got hold of it all.
The mujahideen don’t even smile under their pakool caps They bob their heads – a way of commenting on this weird pact between new Afghan interim government leader Hamid Karzai, a Pashtun moderate very close to former king Zahir Shah’s family, and Mullah Naqibullah, a pro-Taliban Pashtun mujahideen. They recharge their tanks, anti-aircraft guns and Kalashnikovs, and continue to wait for new orders from commander Ali Shah. One mujahideen, contemplating the mountains, volunteers, “Maybe Osama [bin Laden] is there after all, because Kandahar is being conquered.”
Mini-earthquakes shake the cold night in Bamo Khel plateau. Massive B-52s continue to bomb Tora Bora at regular one-hour intervals. In a former Taliban prison – a cement box beside a depot filled with grenades, rocket launchers, ammunition, the works – 14 mujahideen under commander Shah and two journalists pile up amid the blankets. “Omar Omar.” Silence. “Omar Omar.” The silence is pierced only by radio cackle and a fire burning – our only source of heat and light. We sleep in a cell literally filled with smoke. Everybody rises at 4 am. It’s time for Ramadan breakfast: stale pieces of nan and the remains of a chicken stew from the previous night. During the whole day of war, nothing in the stomach until iftar, the breaking of the fast at 5 pm.
War starts at 6:30 am: the mujahideen go to work elbowing each other in the trunks of Toyota pickups, smiling like the kids they mentally are. One of them plays with a hand grenade, oblivious to the possibility of sending us all to paradise. The B-52s resume their circular ballet at 6:30 am. Flashes of light emerge from the mountains. The mind boggles when we think that less than four miles away a lethal concentration, according to the mujahideen, of 3,000 Arabs, Chechens, Uzbeks and Pakistanis bent on fighting to the last man is being bombed to oblivion.
These mujahideen – harder than Tora Bora rock – are the commandos of Hazrat Ali, currently “chief of law and order” in the eastern Afghan city of Jalalabad. They may be members of the loosely configured Eastern Alliance. But above all they are Pachis – a Pashtun subtribe with its own language and fierce code of war. Many of them spent years living in Peshawar in Pakistan during the Taliban holocaust. They have arrived at the frontline only a few days ago. They number a maximum of 2,000 – operating strange hardware inherited from the anti-Soviet jihad. They swear that on the other side there are no Afghan Taliban. The last frontline in the New Afghan War is an affair between Arabs and Afghans.
The Arab commander is feared Abdul Kuduz – known by the mujahideen because they always intercept Al-Qaeda’s radio communications. But none of them speaks Arabic – just like none of the Arabs understand the Pachi dialect. The mujahideen say that the Arabs have only two tanks – both in shambles. All the time we spent in the frontline – almost three days – the Arabs produced only scattered mortar fire.
The war between Arabs and Afghans evolves in slow motion. A few dozen mujahideen are surrounded by the Arabs: only two are captured. A mujahideen arrives at our cell extremely depressed: one of the captured is his friend. He displays some of Arab belongings: passport photos (one of them with a bullet hole), letters, an ammunition belt, a ghostly photo of a black woman in Nigerian dress with a note in Arabic. The feared Arab fighters are revealed to be beardless young men looking like well-behaved graduate students.
Zarin Jan, 40, a mujahideen since 1979 (“I have no other career.”) knows the Tora Bora caves by heart: “They are enormous holes. You can go inside with a big car. The caves are at the base of the mountain. When the Arabs want to fight they come to the top.” Drawing on his experience, he says, “the Russians had many heavy weapons and a complete army. War was very difficult. These people only disappear inside the mountains.” Jan says that the Arabs “have everything inside: schools, hospitals, even parking.” It’s hard to believe they don’t have Kalashnikovs: according to the mujahideen, only “heavy weapons,” which for them means rocket launchers.
The most absurd aspect in this absolutely asymmetrical war is the lack of coordination between the devastating B-52 and F-16 attacks and the slow offensive of the 2,000 mujahideen. The mujahideen take three B-52 attacks just to position a Zu – a double-barreled anti-aircraft gun from Soviet pre-history. But their knowledge of the terrain is matchless: not the commanders, but the soldiers say that the Americans should be bombing the base of the mountain, not the top. The only sat-phone on sight – a Thoraya belonging to commander Hazrat Ali, bought in Dubai – remains absolutely mute.
Suddenly, we are presented with evidence of the “invisible war” constantly evoked by US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld: two pick-ups with tinted windows with six men inside and their high-tech kits. Two journalists approach them: “We believe you wouldn’t like to speak to us.” Surprised, one of them reacts with an “Er … good morning.” Security tries to push us away.
These gentlemen are nothing less than a mixed commando of American Special Forces and British SAS. They don’t seem very pleased to see the media. They go to the top of a hill and study the war map. The result comes less than an hour later: a tank and an anti-personnel carrier are repositioned. The offensive will restart from zero.
The Taliban have been dislodged from every single Afghan province. But are the Taliban dead? Not really. Most of the men who matter have already comfortably parked their turbans in Peshawar – global capital of the Afghan diaspora, including six former Taliban ministers and diplomats who now want … a voice in the new Afghan government. Taliban leader Mullah Omar may have – or may have not – left Kandahar, depending on which Kandahari faction you listen to. Details about the famous pact brokered by Hamid Karzai with Gul Agha – former governor of Kandahar – and Mullah Naqibullah are extremely sketchy. Omar may have been offered – and may have already used – protection to go quietly underground. Of the three Durrani subtribes in control of the border city of Spinbaldak – essentially a canyon of containers full of smuggled goods in the middle of the desert – two say they would protect fellow Pashtun Omar, and one says they would prefer to capture him.
In Tora Bora, the mujahideen know that this war could last weeks, or even months. Muhamad Issa Mishin, a hardcore Pachi from Dar-i-Noor, also fought here during the jihad in the 1980s. “The Russians came here many times, but they never managed to advance.” This happened 18 years ago. The Russians were attacking the mujahideen exactly from the same position where Hazrat Ali’s Pachis are attacking the Arabs. Mishin remembers, “We had enough to light a fire every night. We spent the whole winter here. The Russians bombed the mountains many times. Nothing happened.” And nobody – not least the Pentagon – really knows what is happening right now.
Osama bin Laden was apparently sighted a few days ago on horseback commanding his troops – or maybe that was a mujahideen’s imagination fired up by good hashish. Osama bin Laden may still be hiding in the caves of Tora Bora. Or he may be in the neighboring province of Paktia. He may be in Khost. Or he may be in Khurram agency, already inside Pakistan’s tribal areas. Bin Laden and the Al-Qaeda leaders – including presumed dead Amyan Al-Zawahiri – are moving in the shadows where B-52s and F-16s are not able to penetrate.