Part III of Bin Laden: The Great Escape?

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"Our problem was that the Arabs had paid him more, and so Ilyas Khel just showed the Arabs the way out of the country into Pakistan," Musa adds.

Afghan fighters from villages on the border confirmed in interviews last week in Jalalabad that they had later been engaged in firefights with Khel's fighters, who they said were "firing cover for escaping Al Qaeda."

As a Russian-made tank commandeered by U.S.-backed Afghans blasted the valleys dividing snow-capped peaks, American B-52s rained down bombs from above, sending giant mushroom clouds that hovered over the pine forests.

The remaining Arab fighters—now reduced to a few hundred from the original 1,500 to 2,000—continued to hold out, and could be overheard speaking on their radio handsets on December 6. "OK. You can come out shooting," said one Al Qaeda fighter, speaking to another. "The US planes have flown out of the area again."

"The Sheikh [bin Laden] says keep your children in the caves and fight for Allah. Give guns to your wives as necessary to fight against the infidel aggressors."

But talk of surrender came quickly and unexpectedly on December 11, amid heavy gunbattles in the bombed-out pine forests here. Arab fighters used an Afghan translator earlier in the day to convey their wishes: "Our guest brothers want to find safe passage out of your province."

Ghamsharik responded: "Our blood is your blood, your wives our sisters, and your children our children. But under the circumstances, I am compelled to tell you that you must either leave or surrender."

When Ali, whose men had paid Khel to guard the rear nearly two weeks earlier, complained that no deals should be cut, Ghamsharik shot back: "If you want to hold this ridge, send your own men up here. You are down there with the press and the pretty ladies, and I'm stuck up here." Both men chuckled.

On December 13, Al Qaeda-backer Younus Khalis sent his own man into the fray—this time on the U.S. side of the battle.

Awol Gul was calm and relaxed as B-52s pummeled a mountain behind him and Al Qaeda sniper fire rang out in the distance. "They've been under quite a bit of pressure inside there," he said. "It is likely that they have made a tactical withdrawal farther south. They have good roads, safe passage, and Mr. bin Laden has plenty of friends.

"We are not interested in killing the Arabs," Gul went on to say. "They are our Muslim brothers."

By December 11, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld sounded unsure about how effective Pakistan's military could be in blocking the border. He said: "It's a long border. It's a very complicated area to try to seal, and there's just simply no way you can put a perfect cork in the bottle."

On December 16, Afghan warlords announced they had advanced into the last of the Tora Bora caves. One young commander fighting with 600 of his own troops alongside Ali and Ghamsharik, Haji Zahir, could not have been less pleased with the final prize. There were only 21 bedraggled Al Qaeda fighters who were taken prisoners. "No one told us to surround Tora Bora," Zahir complained. "The only ones left inside for us were the stupid ones, the foolish and the weak."

Epilogue

While the hunt for Osama bin Laden and his top lieutenants has become increasingly invisible, it continues nonetheless. The ongoing fighting in Paktia Province, as well as the deployment of US troops to nations as far-flung as Georgia, Yemen, and the Philippines ensures that US pressure will stay on Al Qaeda's many cells—and that eyes around the world will remain open for "the Sheikh" and the U.S. $25 million bounty the US has attached to his head.

And while the U.S. has taken justifiable pride in its ousting of the Taliban and supporting Afghanistan's fledgling interim government, President Bush's aim of catching the world's most wanted terrorist "dead or alive" has not been accomplished.

"There appears to be a real disconnect between what the U.S. military was engaged in trying to do during the battle for Tora Bora—which was to destroy Al Qaeda and the Taliban—and the earlier rhetoric of President Bush, which had focused on getting bin Laden," says Charles Heyman, editor of Jane's World Armies. "There are citizens all over the Middle East now saying that the U.S. military couldn't do it—couldn't catch Osama—while ignoring the fact that the U.S. military campaign, apart from not capturing Mr. bin Laden was, up the that point, staggeringly effective."

Copyright 2002 The Christian Science Monitor

To return to Part I of the story click here

To return to Part II of the story click here

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