The Battle of Tora Bora: Secrets, Money, Mistrust

February 9, 2002

— Slowly and incompletely, al Qaeda's secrets have been pulled from the rubble of Osama bin Laden's mountain hide-out at Tora Bora. Three teams of U.S. Special Forces, guided by local fighters, have scoured nearly 200 caves in the eight weeks since the tattered remnants of bin Laden's force fled toward Pakistan, carting away satellite telephones and Stinger missiles from isolated holes carved into the rock.

But the Afghan fighters say the Americans have neither found all the caves nor made extensive efforts to identify at least 300 dead bin Laden fighters whose bodies have been seen scattered in the White Mountains of eastern Afghanistan. The Americans took photographs and made videotapes, but did not dig into collapsed caves and bunkers to find additional bodies. They ended their search in late January, the Afghans said. The trail never led them to bin Laden or his top lieutenants.

"The Americans lost their will," said Rahim Jan, an Afghan commander whose men combed the mountains here with the U.S. forces.

Just like the inconclusive battle of Tora Bora that preceded it, the incomplete search of al Qaeda's hide-out illustrates the limits of the U.S. war in Afghanistan, a case study in the enormous difficulties of carrying out a secretive military campaign that depended on cooperation with brutal, greedy and incessantly feuding Afghan commanders.

More than two dozen interviews about the battle in the mountains and its aftermath, including extensive discussions with the senior commanders, offered the first on-the-ground account of a mission that failed to get its prey, and provided new details about the role played by the approximately 40 U.S. Special Forces soldiers who operated here. Taken together, the interviews depict the fragile alliance between the Americans and their local proxies, a relationship defined by mutual dependence and hampered by mutual distrust.

As told by the Afghans, it is a story about American money and the warlords who took it, of crisp $100 bills flashed by illiterate gunmen and double agents who promised to betray al Qaeda forces — but led them to escape instead.

There are differing views about the battle among U.S. military officials. One Pentagon official said that although bin Laden was not captured, the battle of Tora Bora was a success because of the materials about al Qaeda that were seized there. This official said that the media overemphasized the military significance of the conflict because it was the only visible combat at the time, but that other clandestine battles were just as important. Retired Army Gen. Wesley K. Clark said in a recent interview that bin Laden's presence in the mountain caves may have been faked by his followers. "I think Tora Bora will prove to have been a strategic deception by al Qaeda," he said.

An unusual marriage of U.S. aerial attacks and Afghan fighting, the battle of Tora Bora played out in a starkly beautiful mountain range 25 miles southwest of Jalalabad on the Pakistani border. Hidden amid the peaks of the White Mountains, the Tora Bora cave complex was constructed as a refuge for the mujaheddin, or holy warriors, who battled the Soviet occupation in the 1980s. Taken over by bin Laden in the mid-1990s, it became a well-fortified stronghold where an estimated 1,000 of his men regrouped last fall, after the defeat of the Taliban regime.

Three Afghan warlords brought their forces to Tora Bora in late November, competing for credit, booty and U.S. dollars. Returning from years of exile in France, the urbane Pashtun leader Mohammed Zaman Ghun Shareef led one contingent. Zahir, the restless 27-year-old son of regional governor Abdul Qadir, commanded another.

The Americans, however, bet on a third warlord, Hazrat Ali, a veteran guerrilla fighter with a fourth-grade education who got his first military training in the mujaheddin camps of Tora Bora. The Americans gave money to him and weapons to his men; they slept guarded by his fighters and backed him in disputes with rival commanders.

Afghans say the Americans had no choice. "They didn't know the way in Tora Bora, they didn't know the places, they didn't know the atmosphere," said Gul Karim, a top Ali lieutenant who serves as his chief of security in Jalalabad.

Yet, even Ali describes the collaboration in Tora Bora as a "50 percent success" at best, and he is quick to criticize the U.S. soldiers. He cited a Pashtun saying: "If you want to hunt one bird and have more than 100 hunters, it is very possible that the bird will escape." He added, "We had a lot of hunters there, and the bird escaped."

Deep inside Tora Bora today, bitter reminders are everywhere of all that got away from the hunters. The al Qaeda command center in the Milawa Valley is now a quiet heap of rubble, infested by unexploded cluster bombs. The caves are littered with ammunition.

The high peaks rising from the Milawa Valley mark the way to Pakistan. A tame mountain stream trickling down from a quiet forest offers the only visible hint of the hidden trails probably taken by bin Laden's men. The Afghan fighters say it is a 17-hour walk to the border. On the other side, Pakistani authorities rounded up more than 150 al Qaeda fighters fleeing Tora Bora; no one knows how many they didn't catch.

Desultory Battles From the start, the military campaign against bin Laden's forces at Tora Bora was disorganized and haphazard. On day one, the Afghan commanders warned that bin Laden and his followers could be fleeing over the mountains. But they also boldly proclaimed that bin Laden himself was there, spreading tantalizing rumors that they don't mention now. The Americans, who strongly pressured the Afghans to open the battle, did not arrive on the ground until three days after the fighting began.

The U.S. bombardment, which became a withering daily assault, began in earnest on Nov. 30 with several attacks. The bombs took their toll among civilians. More than 150 people died that weekend, according to local authorities. At the outset, the Americans found themselves drawn into the complicated battlefield politics that would dominate Tora Bora.

In the Agam District building, for example, the missiles killed eight men fighting with Zaman, the Pashtun commander. Zaman's deputy said that they had seized five al Qaeda cars from Tora Bora and that the cars were parked outside the district building. It is not known precisely who ordered the attack, but the building was hit by U.S. bombers. In the village of Pacheer Agam, the U.S. had what it thought was another al Qaeda target: the home of reported al Qaeda intermediary Mirajuddin. He escaped, according to several sources, but some 20 members of his family died, as did about 50 neighbors.

"We told them, 'You missed the target,' " said Malik Haji Nazir, a tribal elder who later worked with the U.S. Special Forces. "They said, 'We never miss the target.' They never apologized."

Mirajuddin had been secretly negotiating with Zaman's top commander, Gul Amir Jan, to hand over bin Laden. When the deal fell through, Amir called in the Americans.

"Before the bombing, Mirajuddin came to me and told me Osama was in Tora Bora with his two sons. I offered him 300,000 rupees," or about $5,084, he said. "Then he told me he would come, but he didn't. The Americans asked me about this conversation, and I told them he didn't come so they bombed his house. I pointed out this house to the Pentagon."

On Monday, Dec. 3, Ali announced the offensive, and fighters scrambled to Tora Bora, unprepared for winter warfare and uncertain of their mission. Eventually, a force of about 2,500 was assembled — divided among those reporting to Ali, Zaman and Zahir.

"I only heard about the offensive that day at 7 a.m.," recalled Zahir, who has been a fighter since he was a teenager and whose family has long ruled in this part of eastern Afghanistan. "My father told me, 'Just go,' so I left for Tora Bora. I took 700 soldiers. We got there, but I don't know for what. We had no food or anything. We just got there with nothing but these 700 soldiers."

As desultory fighting began around the Tora Bora cave complex, the Americans secretly helicoptered in, working almost exclusively with Ali.

Ali said they had first been in contact with him a few weeks after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, working with him to the north in the Panjshir Valley, where he was a commander of the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance.

"When we started off in Tora Bora, we didn't have enough real information," Ali recalled. "But the Americans were in a big hurry to start the offensive. We had a force there, but we didn't have a good enough intelligence network."

Ali asked the tribal elder, Nazir, to help set up the Americans in Agam, a village at the foot of the White Mountains. They commandeered a school building, covering pane-less windows with cardboard boxes. Eventually, the U.S. Special Forces soldiers, who gave their names as Mike, Dave, Jim and others, were divided into three teams code-named black, silver and red. Nazir led a mule train with one group to set up a mountain camp, finding them a hidden vantage point from which to watch the bombing.

The tribal elder's real job was to sway a hostile local population that had long harbored al Qaeda. He appealed to the villagers for support.

Even so, Nazir was skeptical of the military offensive. "The Americans," he said, "tackled this operation with very bad planning." Beholden to warlords who didn't know the secret paths to Pakistan, the Americans couldn't succeed without help from villagers — help they never got.

"The Americans were with the commanders, and they were trapped by them," Nazir said. "The villagers know where [the al Qaeda forces] are and where they are living, but the Americans rely on these commanders, who don't know."

The Afghans fought, and then retreated. They seized a command post one day, fell back the next.

Secret Negotiations What Ali called "the turning point" came Dec. 12, when Zaman announced he had negotiated a cease-fire with the al Qaeda fighters, to take effect the next morning. More than 100 Arabs, he claimed, were prepared to surrender, but only to the United Nations. Ali screamed into his wireless radio at Zaman, trying to block the deal in full view of reporters, saying that it was a trick to allow al Qaeda's escape.

The morning of Dec. 13, the Americans were also furious. Meeting with Ali, Zaman and others in the Agam school building, they made clear there would be no halt in the bombing. Ali said he watched as the Americans called in a new round of airstrikes on their satellite phone, and he recalled that they set up a message, to be written in the air, announcing their disdain.

Soon, a B-52 bomber was streaking over Tora Bora. First, the pilot traced a figure eight in plumes of white smoke — for 8 a.m., the time of the alleged surrender. Then, the bomber flew around and around in a tight circle, writing 'ON' in the air. The battle continued.

But so did the Afghan intrigue. While blaming Zaman for giving the Arabs time to escape, Ali was also holding secret talks with al Qaeda. His main go-between was Ilas Khel, a local commander. Khel had worked for Yunus Khalis, a legendary leader of the war against the Soviets, who was close to bin Laden.

Ali confirmed that he had paid Khel 500,000 Pakistani rupees (about $8,330) and given him a satellite phone, and that Khel had taken off with the money rather than hand over the Arabs as he had promised.

Such deals didn't surprise his American allies. "Hazrat Ali is very opportunistic, taking money from our side and also the al Qaeda folks," said a Western diplomat who followed the events here. "He even let some of them escape."

To his Afghan rivals, Ali's behavior was suspect. "Everyone knows who gave the help for escape to the Arabs," said Amir, Zaman's commander.

As late as Dec. 14, Ali said of the bin Laden forces, "They cannot escape. The mujaheddin have blocked the road." Better coordinated by then with U.S. warplanes, his fighters roved across the peaks, radioing in urgently for U.S. missiles to rain down on the remaining Arab snipers they encountered. The Afghans were better supplied, too, as evinced by the bottles of Poland Spring water littering the mountains and the U.S.-issue sleeping bags in their camps.

But Ali later acknowledged, "A lot of people escaped during that time." As massive, 15,000-pound "daisy cutter" bombs shook the mountains like earthquakes, there was at least one pitched battle, high up in the peaks in uninhabited areas known as Gharangali and Uchnow. The circumstances are unclear; commanders of Ali, Zaman and Zahir all claim to have taken part. All said that more than 100 of bin Laden's men were killed. Ali said he personally gave the order to fire.

But the rest of the al Qaeda fighters escaped over the mountains. Only a relatively small number were captured — 57, according to most of the commanders — and the prisoners never offered more than tantalizing hints of bin Laden's whereabouts to their Afghan captors.

Zahir took possession of many of the al Qaeda captives, parading 10 Arabs and nine Afghans before the media on Dec. 17. It was the battle's final set piece. In front of the cameras, most appeared scared and injured, but one defiant prisoner flashed a victory sign.

Once again, Afghan feuding blocked U.S. intentions as a standoff developed over who would control the prisoners. Ali demanded that they be handed over to the United States; Zahir balked, and the Americans had to wait several days to interrogate them. Ali's and Zahir's men agree on what the prisoners told them about bin Laden: He had been in Tora Bora about two weeks earlier, with two of his sons and several top lieutenants.

"The prisoners said he came . . . and gave us a speech. He said paradise is on your way and you have to fight until death. 'We are in a very good position, so don't feel any fear of death,' " recalled Khan Mohammed, who was in charge of Zahir's improvised jail in Agam. Added Zahir, "I asked these Arabs in Arabic. They said that Osama came here 12 days ago and he drank one cup of tea with us and told us to be strong."

'Not a Real War' The subsequent search highlighted the collision between U.S. ambitions and Afghan realities. Every morning at 8, the U.S. Special Forces would meet with Musa, Ali's top deputy. "They wanted to see all the dead bodies, all the caves, all the villages, all the mountains. They wanted to see each and every stone," said Musa, a curly-bearded fighter who brags about his three wives and 20 children.

From the caves, they carted away prizes hinting at the mix of high technology and primitive living in Tora Bora, retrieving satellite phones and global positioning system (GPS) receivers, documents and CDs, videotapes, and at least one al Qaeda computer.

But the Afghans never delivered all the spoils. Ali's men freely raided the caves themselves, unabashedly asking visitors if they wanted to buy some of the loot. Ali said he has yet to give the Americans one of his best discoveries: four Stinger missiles from the CIA-funded war against the Soviets.

Not surprisingly, the Americans didn't trust Musa and he didn't trust them. But at the end of the search, Musa said, he felt differently. He and the Americans flew by helicopter to five of the most remote spots in the mountains where al Qaeda bodies had been found, then camped together on the Pakistani border. "After that night on the mountain," he said, "then they trusted me."

But he said he never respected them. "Really, I can't believe they are soldiers. They really looked like schoolboys. Always they were afraid," Musa said. He was, however, in awe of their power to call down bombs from the sky, of the lasers that guided missiles to hidden caves and the GPS devices they taught the Afghans to operate. "I am impressed by the technology," he said, "not the soldiers."

The disdain was mutual. Jalalabad's mayor, Engineer Ghafar, a famous mujaheddin commander from the fight against the Soviets, related one such example. After the battle, he said, the Special Forces went to Farm Hada, a former al Qaeda center outside Jalalabad, to search for families of bin Laden fighters still in hiding. Instead, the Afghans started looting the houses. Furious, the Americans called a halt.

By late January, their mission ending, the Americans had turned sentimental. "They were hugging us, thanking us," recalled one fighter. They were also handing out presents. For Musa, the official gift was a pair of night-vision goggles. The Americans told him it was a personal thank-you from Secretary of State Colin L. Powell.

But the Special Forces were also asking pointed questions about why their Afghan hunters had failed them. In a meeting late last month with the Jalalabad mayor, "they were angry that they spent so much money here and the Arabs escaped," Ghafar recalled.

The Americans told Ghafar they had challenged Ali during the fighting on why escape routes weren't being cut off and hadn't been satisfied with the answer. "The Americans poured money in their pockets," the mayor said, "but it was not a real war. They are just doing these things for the money."

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