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Part II of Bin Laden: The Great Escape?

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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. Also—as was its pattern elsewhere in Afghanistan—the U.S. began enlisting local warlords. Two—Hazret Ali and Haji Zaman Ghamsharik—would 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 Pashay—no 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 themselves—while sometimes arguing fiercely—how 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 warlords—Ali and Ghamsharik—Khalis, 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.

Ghamsharik said on November 18 that the fight would be a tough one: "[Al Qaeda fighters] told us through our envoys that 'We will fight until we are martyred.' "

They also suspected that bin Laden himself would be directing the battle. After all, it was the place from which he had most successfully fought the Soviets in the 1980s.

And on November 29, Vice President Dick Cheney told ABC's "Primetime Live" that, according to the reports that were coming in, bin Laden was in Tora Bora." I think he was equipped to go to ground there," Cheney said. "He's got what he believes to be a fairly secure facility. He's got caves underground; it's an area he's familiar with."

An Exodus Begins

Meanwhile, in the weeks following bin Laden's arrival at the Tora Bora caves, morale slipped under the constant air assault. One group of Yemeni fighters, squirreled away in a cave they had been assigned to by the Al Qaeda chief, had not seen bin Laden since entering on November 13.

But they say bin Laden joined them on November 26, the 11th day of Ramadan, a warm glass of green tea in his hand. Instead of inspiring the elite fighters, he was now reduced, they say, to repeating the same "holy war" diatribe.

Around him that day sat three of his most loyal fighters, including Abu Baker, a square-faced man with a rough-hewn scruff on his chin." [Bin Laden] said, 'hold your positions firm and be ready for martyrdom,' " Baker told Afghan intelligence officers when he was captured in mid-December. "He said, 'I'll be visiting you again, very soon.' " Then, as quickly as he had come, Baker says, bin Laden vanished into the pine forests.

Between two and four days later, somewhere between November 28 to November 30—according to detailed interviews with Arabs and Afghans in eastern Afghanistan afterward—the world's most-wanted man escaped the world's most-powerful military machine, walking—with four of his loyalists—in the direction of Pakistan.

On December 11, in the village of Upper Pachir—located a few miles northeast of the main complex of caves where Al Qaeda fighters were holed up—a Saudi financier and Al Qaeda operative, Abu Jaffar, was interviewed by the Christian Science Monitor. Fleeing the Tora Bora redoubt, Jaffar said that bin Laden had left the cave complexes roughly 10 days earlier, heading for the Parachinar area of Pakistan.

Jaffar, whose foot was blown off by a cluster bomb, was traveling with his Egyptian wife. He stayed in Upper Pachir one night, before fleeing north, then east toward the famed Khyber Pass.

The Escape Accelerates

Bin Laden, according to several fighters and the Saudi financier, later phoned back to the enclave, urging his followers to keep fighting. He also reportedly told them he was sending his own son, Salah Uddin, to replace him. Bin Laden's talk with his followers in Tora Bora just a few days after his departure may explain why U.S. intelligence officials said that they thought they heard his voice on December 10, probably on a short-wave transmission.

The slow but growing exodus from Tora Bora now became a mad rush. Mohammed Akram, who had occasionally cooked for bin Laden, says he was fixing dinner in a cave at the end of November, when a huge bomb exploded at the base and blew him some 30 feet back into the mouth of the grotto. Two of his colleagues were killed, and he, along with another Saudi and a Kurdish fighter, decided to flee.

His flight, he stated in February, began about the same day at the end of November as bin Laden escaped. "We received a lot of Iranian currency, and the commanders distributed it to the soldiers," he said, adding that he had received 700,000 rials (U.S. $1,400) for his own personal use. "Our own Chechens were killing people who tried to leave so we left at night and traveled into Paktia [the province to the south] near to Gardez and onto Zarmat."

As panic overtook the fighters inside the enclave, local villagers who had been regularly paid off by bin Laden's men were available to help.

Malik Habib Gul, who had attended bin Laden's November 10 speech in Jalalabad, says he was happy to arrange mule trains. He says the Al Qaeda fighters paid between 5,000 and 50,000 Pakistani rupees for mules and Afghan guides, which moved stealthily along the base of the White Mountains, over a major highway, and into the remote tribal areas of Pakistan.

"This was a golden opportunity for our village," he said in Jalalabad last week. "The only problem for the Arabs was the first 5 to 10 kilometers northeast from Tora Bora to our village of Upper Pachir. The bombing was very heavy. But after arriving in our village, there were no problems. You could ride a mule or drive a car into Pakistan."

He and other villagers say that from about November 28 to December 12, they probably escorted some 600 people out, including entire families. "Our main responsibility was getting people across the Kabul River at Lalpur. To do this, we had to cross the main road, but there was no one guarding it. To the south [in the direction of Parachinar, Pakistan], only walkers, mostly young fighters crossed. The snow was deep and the climb was difficult."

To continue to Part III of the story click here

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