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Part III of Bin Laden: The Great Escape?

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Intelligence Lapses or Flawed Strategy?

Pir Baksh Bardiwal, the intelligence chief for the Eastern Shura, which controls eastern Afghanistan, says he was astounded that Pentagon planners didn't consider the most obvious exit routes and put down light U.S. infantry to block them.

"The border with Pakistan was the key, but no one paid any attention to it," he said, leaning back in his swivel chair with a short list of the Al Qaeda fighters who were later taken prisoner. "And there were plenty of landing areas for helicopters, had the Americans acted decisively. Al Qaeda escaped right out from under their feet."

The intelligence chief contends that several thousand Pakistani troops who had been placed along the border about December 10 never did their job, nor could they have been expected to, given that the exit routes were not being blocked inside Afghanistan.

The Proxy War is Launched

Meanwhile, back in Jalalabad, the Afghan warlords enlisted by the U.S. to attack Tora Bora were also cutting deals to help the Al Qaeda fighters escape.

In the shoddy lobby of the Spin Ghar Hotel in downtown Jalalabad on December 3, Haji Hayat Ullah—a member of the Eastern Shura who, according to both Afghan and Pakistani sources had long ties to bin Laden—asked for the "safe passage" for three of his Arab friends.

After a 20-minute discussion with Commander Ali, which was overheard by the Monitor in the empty hotel lobby, a deal was struck for the safe passage of the three Al Qaeda members.

About the same day as the 10-day offensive was launched—on December 5—nearly three-dozen U.S. special forces, their faces wrapped in black and white bandanas, watched the fighting unfold from behind boulders on mountainsides, their trusted laser target designators in hand. They were "painting" the mouths of caves and bunkers inside the complex. The U.S. bombing became markedly more accurate—almost overnight, according to Afghan civilians and local commanders.

The battle was joined, but anything approaching a "siege" of Tora Bora never materialized. Ghamsharik says today that he offered the US military the use his forces in a "siege of Tora Bora," but that the US opted in favor of his rival, Hazret Ali.

Indeed, Ali paid a lieutenant named Ilyas Khel to block the main escape routes into Pakistan. Khel had come to him three weeks earlier from the ranks of Taliban commander Awol Gul.

"I paid him 300,000 Pakistani rupees [$5,000] and gave him a satellite phone to keep us informed," says Mohammed Musa, an Ali deputy, who says Ali had firmly "trusted" Khel.

"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

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