U.S. Draws Up its Battle Plan
As the U.S. intensified its airstrikes on Tora Bora, U.S. and Afghan helicopters started to arrive with supplies for the Afghans. Alsoas was its pattern elsewhere in Afghanistanthe U.S. began enlisting local warlords. TwoHazret Ali and Haji Zaman Ghamsharikwould become notorious in the battle for Tora Bora.
Both Ali and Ghamsharik say they were first approached by plain-clothed U.S. officers in the middle of November and asked to take part in an attack on the Tora Bora base.
"We looked at the entire spectrum of options that we had available to us and decided that the use of small liaison elements were the most appropriate," says Army Colonel Rick Thomas in a phone interview from U.S. Central Command Headquarters in Tampa, Florida.
"We chose to fight using the Afghans who were fighting to regain their own country," Colonel Thomas says. "Our aims of eliminating Al Qaeda were similar."
Ali is a short, cocky fighter who won control over most of Jalalabad when the Taliban vacated on November 13. He then became security chief for the Eastern Shura, the self-proclaimed government here. With only a fourth-grade education, he can sign documents, but he has trouble reading them. As an anti-Taliban fighter allied to former Northern Alliance commander Ahmed Shah Masood, who was assassinated just before September 11, Ali and his band of hillbilly fighters fought against the Taliban in the north for six years. Local Pashtuns in Jalalabad complain that Ali's men went on a looting spree during their first days in town.
As a counterbalance to Ali, the U.S. chose another powerful regional warlord, Ghamsharik, whom they had lured back from exile in Dijon, France, in late September. Known to many as a ruthless player in the regional smuggling business, Ghamsharik was given a rousing party on his return, including a 1,000-gun salute. He became the Jalalabad commander of the Eastern Shura. But he still didn't have the support of his own Afghan tribesmen (Khugani). Many of them, in fact, were proud to admit that they worked for Al Qaeda inside the Tora Bora base as well as in several nearby bases.
From the start, Ghamsharik was clearly uncomfortable with the power-sharing arrangement. Ali's men were Pashayno relation to Ghamsharik's own Pashtun followers. He called his rival Ali "a peasant," and said he could not be trusted.
The rift between the two men would seriously hinder U.S. efforts to capture Al Qaeda's leadership. Although backed by the United States, the Jalalabad warlords would have to determine by themselveswhile sometimes arguing fiercelyhow best to go after Tora Bora's defenders.
Moreover, in the early stages of the Eastern Shura discussions about Tora Bora, these leaders talked about "asking the Arabs to leave," not about attacking them outright. A key powerbroker, Maulvi Younus Khalis, a Jalalabad patriarch who supported bin Laden, had stacked the Shura with his own sympathizers. "The Americans can bomb all they want, they'll never catch Osama," he quipped to the Christian Science Monitor on November 25.
While ceding some power to the two competing warlordsAli and GhamsharikKhalis, who had been temporarily handed the key to Jalalabad when the Taliban vacated, made sure that his personal military commander, Awol Gul, retained the heavy fighting equipment. Mr. Gul and another Khalis man, Mohammed Amin, traveled into Tora Bora on several occasions beginning November 13, according to Ghamsharik.
The Afghan warlords estimated that Tora Bora held between 1,500 and 1,600 of the best Arab and Chechen fighters in bin Laden's terror network.