'Very Safe' Qaeda Caves Hard to Hit, Fighters Say
By JOHN KIFNER
The New York Times December 10, 2001
TORA BORA, Afghanistan, Dec. 9 Commander Hajji Muhammad Zaman, his automatic pistol in a shoulder holster, climbed a rickety ladder of logs to the roof of his mud- walled headquarters at midday today and grimly surveyed the array of dark ridgelines climbing to snowcapped peaks spread before him.
"It is very difficult," he said.
Scattered among those ridges are 30 or 40 fortified caves that are the last bastion of Osama bin Laden's hard-core supporters and perhaps the hide-out of the terrorist mastermind himself the final focus of America's war in Afghanistan.
A gray cloud suddenly appeared over one of the higher ridges, followed moments later by a boom: carpet bombing by an American B- 52, the white contrails stark in a blue sky. A P-3 Orion reconnaissance plane flew lower, and F-14 Tomcat fighters were in the area. Afghan mujahedeen troops, carrying AK-47 assault rifles and grenade launchers, lounged around the headquarters.
But in stark contrast to upbeat reports from commanders in Kabul and Washington, it is clear on the ground here that the siege of Tora Bora is stalled. Instead of "combing the mountains" in search of Mr. bin Laden, as one report from Kabul had it, the mujahedeen here are mostly squatting on their haunches.
"It is not a simple operation," said Commander Zaman, who is in charge of the Jalalabad fighters. "The United States has bombed all over Afghanistan, they have bombed Tora Bora more than any other part of the country. But this place is very safe and the caves are well protected from bombing."
Thus far the war here has been remarkably successful, with a combination of heavy American bombing, a proxy Afghan army and the shifting allegiances of warlords.
But Tora Bora may be different.
The mountain caves here have long been the refuge of Afghan fighters. Fortified with the help of the Central Intelligence Agency in the 1980's, they withstood Soviet attacks, and they have been further strengthened, people here say, over the last five years by Mr. bin Laden's Arab fighters. The roughly 2,000 foreign fighters in the mountains have little incentive to surrender; unable to switch like Afghans, they could be killed if captured.
And, while the mujahedeen are hardened, experienced fighters, their strength lies in the guerrilla skills of ambush and raids, not a conventional frontal assault on dug-in positions. In their uphill bunkers, Al Qaeda forces have the advantage of terrain.
Early last week, the Pashtun tribal forces of the Eastern Shura, which took over the Jalalabad area from the Taliban, began assembling a force of roughly 2,500 fighters.
But in the last few days their forays up into the ridges have been driven back by barrages of mortar rounds. Indeed, today, the mujahedeen would not permit a journalist to go forward about two miles to what had been a command position on Friday, saying it was too dangerous.
"Al Qaeda has well-placed mortar positions with large fields of fire," Commander Zaman said. "They control their area right now."
As to Mr. bin Laden, the prime object of the American hunt, Commander Zaman asserted, "I am sure 100 percent he is here."
There have been several reports of recent sightings of Mr. bin Laden including one that said he was on horseback although none could be independently confirmed.
But the mountain caves are said to contain caverns that form virtual tunnels that could allow the elusive terrorist to escape into the wild, lawless frontier provinces of Pakistan where that government's writ runs small, if at all.
The cave complex, with its extensive fortifications, and the passageways were described the other day by a group of mujahedeen fighters who had fought in or worked on the construction of the caves in the war against the Soviets.
"You could go to Pakistan by walking, not by car," said a doctor named Hamid, who had helped build the refuge, as other fighters nodded their assent. "You do not have to go over the mountaintop."
The mujahedeen were gathered in the Jalalabad house of a local commander, Ghulam Murtaza, who is loyal to Hazarat Ali, security chief of the Eastern Shura. They recounted how the cave network had been vastly improved with Mr. bin Laden's wealth since the war against the Soviets ended.
"At the time of the British aggression there were 19 caves," Commander Murtaza said, suggesting that the mountain redoubts had been hide-outs for Afghan fighters since the 19th century.
Twenty years ago, a local commander, Engineer Mahmoud, expanded the network into about 30 caves. During the war against the Soviets, Mr. bin Laden's construction brigades were active in this area building camps for the mujahedeen, as was the C.I.A.
"There are some caves where there can be up to 30 trucks, big trucks," said Muhammad Ahgul, a fighter who had been in the caves during the war against the Soviets. "In one cave there was enough ammunition for three years. It was a big depot for the mujahedeen."
But in the last few years, the mujahedeen said, the Arab fighters loyal to Mr. bin Laden have expanded the complex considerably, building new fortifications and housing with bricks and reinforced concrete.
"During the jihad we did not have the means to do this," Commander Murtaza said. "The activities of the Arabs are very modern, and also they have great wealth."
There are extensive supplies, ammunition and electric generators and, they said, Al Qaeda forces had recently brought in six truckloads of food and other supplies. Mujahedeen at the front have said for several days that some of the Arabs have their families with them in the caves. There is water from springs above the caves, the fighters said. The caves could be supplied from Pakistan, they added, which had been going on until quite recently.
"It is not destroyable by bombs," said Mr. Aghul, describing the cave fortifications. "You can destroy it only from inside. From outside it is impossible."
Commander Zaman agreed with this assessment, saying: "Their location is very difficult, deep in the mountains. Our attack will come not very soon."
He dismissed the Northern Alliance's optimistic pronouncements: "The Northern Alliance is talking from Kabul. We are sitting here."
The difficulties were emphasized again on Saturday night when Commander Zaman slipped a detachment up the slope to set up a machine gun nest on a small peak overlooking Al Qaeda forces in a valley. They had just called in by radio when the American bombs fell, killing three of his own men.
"I don't want to blame them too much," he said of the Americans today. "Every war has its mistakes."
|Back to News Archirves of 2001|
Disclaimer: This news site is mostly a compilation of publicly accessible articles on the Web in the form of a link or saved news item. The news articles and commentaries/editorials are protected under international copyright laws. All credit goes to the original respective source(s).