12 December 2001
"One of the huts had once been a training room with concrete dumbbells, an old pair of boxing gloves and metal weights. On the floor lay a discarded paper target, printed by America's vociferous gun lobby, the National Rifle Association, replete with bullet holes and names and scores scribbled in Arabic."
Broken al-Qaida driven
from their last fortress
Rory McCarthy in Tora Bora
Wednesday December 12, 2001, The Guardian
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Broken al-Qaida driven from their last fortressRory McCarthy in Tora Bora
The ash in the campfires of Tora Bora in the heart of Afghanistan's White Mountains was still warm. Around the boxes of heavy-calibre ammunition at the mouth of one cave lay a freshly used intravenous drip, still spattered with drops of blood.
For more than a week Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida fighters held on desperately to their final stronghold, hiding in caves as B-52s and jet fighters rained down thousands of pounds of America's most destructive weaponry on the mountains of Tora Bora.
Finally yesterday 800 troops - Bin Laden perhaps among them - surged up the steep, rocky valleys under volleys of tank and mortar fire. The broken Arab fighters could hold out no longer. They fled their caves, racing away in retreat over the high Enzeri Zur peak to the icy mountain ridges on the Pakistan border.
"There is no way for them to escape now. We have come through their caves and driven them up into the mountains," said Hazarat Ali, one of the three Pashtun commanders leading the attack. "We have captured a lot of caves and much heavy ammunition."
Within hours a ceasefire was arranged and the last of Bin Laden's al-Qaida force left in Afghanistan was given until 8am local time today to give up or face a new attack.
In the valleys behind them they left a scene of devastation. High on one ridgeline in Tora Bora a tall forest was torn apart. For hundreds of metres in all directions the bark was stripped from shredded tree stumps.
Last week the forest was cover for al-Qaida machine-gun and mortar positions. But when the mojahedin fighters swept through yesterday the al-Qaida stone bunkers lay in ruins. Bloodstained clothes riddled with small holes lay on the dusty rubble and hung from the few remaining branches. A Toyota pick-up sat slumped in a crater, torn apart by shrapnel.
To one side lay a large sheet of American metal marked "Dispenser and bomb, aircraft CBU 87B/B", the casing for the cluster bomb unit which levelled this ridgeline. A handful of desperate mojahedin soldiers scavenged for scraps of metal among the dozens of unexploded, yellow, cylindrical anti-personnel bomblets scattered across the hillside. On a second sheet of green metal casing nearby an American soldier named Gary had scribbled his own brief marking before loading the cluster bomb into the hold of one of the B-52s.
"For those whose dreams were taken," he wrote, "here are a few nightmares. This is gonna shine like a diamond in a goat's ass".
By lunchtime yesterday Commander Ali stood with a broad grin by a small brick hut close to the devastated ridge surveying the advancing troops on the hills around him, urging on his commanders by satellite telephone.
"We have captured the top of the mountain and told the Arabs to surrender. They are surrounded on four sides," he said. "We will continue to fight them, to kill them and to capture them. Now we don't need any more American bombs. This is how guerrilla war works: sometimes it is easy, sometimes it is difficult." Of Bin Laden himself, however, there was no sign. America's main objective of war - taking the Saudi terrorist, as US president George Bush famously put it, either alive or dead - is as elusive now as it was on September 11.
Mojahedin soldiers said villagers believed he often stayed at the command centre. One soldier said the Saudi dissident was seen on Monday by local scouts. Senior mojahedin commanders, keen for continued American military support, insist he is still close by. "He is here. I am 100% certain of that," said Cdr Ali. "We have intelligence reports that up to yesterday he was in this area."
Bin Laden has several escape routes from the mountains. Some tracks lead west back into central Afghanistan. Others lead south through the snowbound Kharoti Pass into Pakistan's Khurram area, where 8,000 to 9,000 army and paramilitary troops are now deployed along the border to prevent any al-Qaida fighters sneaking across.
Few expect Bin Laden's loyalists to walk down the stony valleys of Tora Bora with their hands above their heads. Before yesterday the al-Qaida fighters, who are thought to number at least 700, had given little sign that they were willing to surrender as easily as the now defunct Taliban regime, which had been their host for five years. Every word from an Arab fighter heard over the radio at Tora Bora has suggested they were willing to fight to the death. "We have come here to be martyrs. We are ready to face the American troops," one Arab fighter said in a radio message before yesterday's attack.
Cdr Ali was reluctant to admit the role of the dozen US special forces troops who have been living in an abandoned schoolhouse close to the frontline for the past week, driving to the front every day in a green four-wheel drive with tinted windows, ordering in air strikes and last night making raids on al-Qaida positions. "The American soldiers are in my pocket," he said, grinning.
For several hours in the morning his mojahedin troops faced stiff resistance high up the valley as they pressed forward. At one point several commanders were pinned down on the ridge by heavy fire from a sniper's nest. But by lunchtime the positions were overrun and mojahedin commanders called a ceasefire as they negotiated with their Arab counterparts over the radio.
"We will stop fighting for 30 minutes, don't fire your guns," Mohammad Zaman, another of the lead commanders, told his troops over the radio. "The Arabs will send a delegation to meet us. They said because it is Ramadan they want to end this without more fighting."
A two-man delegation was sent, brief discussions were held and al-Qaida fighters were ordered to surrender. Cdr Zaman said fighters who gave themselves up would face international prosecution. The battle for Tora Bora, although fierce, left few al-Qaida casualties. Their huts and gun positions were destroyed but nearly all the fighters managed to escape.
Even the bombing seems to have claimed few lives. The caves are still intact and would have provided sanctuary during the B-52 raids.
A dusty track led down from the ridge to the bottom of the valley where a muddy river trickled by the entrance to the first of the caves. By a path above the river, tall, narrow slits, barely a metre wide, had been carved out of the rock and protected with sandbags and boxes of machine-gun shells and 82mm mortars. In the corner a small dark hole led inside to a dark cavernous space, almost certainly still protected by hidden mines and booby traps.
"We saw ammunition inside and blankets, mattresses and pillows," said Naseem, one of the first mojahedin soldiers to reach the caves yesterday. "They had a mortar position here at the front and every time the American aircraft came they ran inside the cave for cover. There are more caves either side of this one. Even their families lived here with them but now they have all escaped with their women and children."
Outside the caves was a row of brick and stone huts, most bombed wide open. Around lay the human trappings of an al-Qaida gun post: empty packets of milk, cans of tomato paste, boxes of chicken stock, sheets of pink toilet paper, dozens of radio batteries and the plastic wrapping for a pair of Chinese-made socks.
Further up the valley floor was a larger command centre: dozens of huts built on several tiers of earth, now a grey, dusty wasteland of shattered wooden beams and rubble littered with shards of American bombs and circuit boards from weapons guidance systems, all guarded by a destroyed T-55 tank.
One of the huts had once been a training room with concrete dumbbells, an old pair of boxing gloves and metal weights. On the floor lay a discarded paper target, printed by America's vociferous gun lobby, the National Rifle Association, replete with bullet holes and names and scores scribbled in Arabic.
As idle mojahedin soldiers boasted of their victory before sunset yesterday the first al-Qaida casualties were carried down the hillside.
The two bodies lay on the soil, surrounded by a crowd of gloating mojahedin. The first was wrapped respectfully in a neat, grey blanket. The second was less well covered. He lay on his side, crouched over, his bare feet and small, blistered toes closed tightly together. A large piece of shrapnel was embedded deep in his thigh and dark patches of blood still oozed through the blanket wrapped over his head.
The men had been carried from the sniper's nest - the last two soldiers ordered to remain at their posts on the day Bin Laden's fighters fled Tora Bora.