The Last Round-Up: Into the Caves

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Anti-Taliban fighters near Tora Bora

The white mountains of Afghanistan are beautiful this time of year. Snow blankets the peaks from Kabul to the Khyber Pass, smothering the ancient smugglers' footpaths that lead out of the country and into Pakistan. With the arrival of winter, human traffic in the mountains comes to a halt and the terrain is enveloped in an otherworldly calm.

Last week the hush was shattered by the blasts of hundreds of American bombs, the rattle of Kalashnikovs and the roar of tanks and pickup trucks carrying about 1,000 anti-Taliban soldiers into the Tora Bora cave complex to deliver a final reckoning to Osama bin Laden. The Afghans crept through the valleys and into the caves in the wake of U.S. air strikes, hoping to nab enemy militants as they tried to scramble to higher ground.

But things did not proceed quite as planned. On Thursday, 60 fighters ventured past a front line near the village of Melawa and took up positions on a hill that offered a clear line of fire. Moments later al-Qaeda snipers protecting bin Laden began firing from a crest above. Six men were gravely wounded. The hunters evacuated the injured, then beat a retreat, done for the day. "We were thinking we'd be bold and courageous," said one. "They were waiting for us."

For the Taliban, for Osama bin Laden and his dwindling legion of lieutenants, Tora Bora is the last sanctuary. The Taliban's barbaric and medieval rule unraveled for good last week as the regime's soldiers fled from Kandahar, their last stronghold. Some skulked back to their home villages with the idea of starting new lives. Others, like Mullah Mohammed Omar, the Taliban's supreme leader, went missing. As a fresh power struggle raged in Kandahar and a new Afghan government prepared to take over in Kabul, the black turbans and medieval strictures of Taliban rule began to seem like a bad dream.

There are bound to be more surprises lurking in the snow. In a war of bribes and secret deals, targets have a way of becoming more elusive the closer you get to them, and victory doesn't necessarily bring the promised spoils. The conflict in Afghanistan has confounded expectations. Who anticipated that the Taliban's rule would disintegrate wholesale two months into the U.S. bombing campaign? Or that the regime's soldiers would abandon Kandahar as meekly and abruptly as they did, quitting the city in the dead of night?

The reaction to that leave taking proved to be no surprise at all. The next morning, amid much confusion, there was jubilation in the streets of Kandahar. Residents tore down the white Taliban flag and waved pictures of exiled King Zaher Shah, and rebel Pashtun forces fired AK-47 rounds into the air.

But there was no champagne in the allies' high command. Anti-Taliban forces in Kandahar led by Hamid Karzai, the interim Prime Minister of Afghanistan, failed to capture Omar. That left the U.S. and its allies embroiled in a two-front manhunt for the Taliban chief and his even more high-profile Saudi guest. "We simply don't know right now where Omar is," the U.S. Central Command chief, General Tommy Franks, said Friday. A Kandahar eyewitness told TIME that early in the week Omar was spotted heading into the hills around Argandhab, west of Kandahar, with five bodyguards. He was said to be riding on the back of a motorcycle, with his henchmen around him. On Friday Karzai told TIME, "I consider Omar a criminal, an associate of terrorists. He's a fugitive from the law."

The allies have long believed that Omar and bin Laden would choose to go down in a blaze of martyrdom. But with the storm gathering around them, both men appeared intent on survival. Perhaps their only way out was a dangerous route through the snowy passes of the White Mountains and into one of the border towns of Pakistan. Once there, they could receive refuge from sympathetic Pashtun tribesmen and be absorbed into the anonymous urban surroundings.

American commanders were determined to stop them. With control of the country wrested from the Taliban, the full wrath of American military power turned toward the sprawling Tora Bora fortress in the eastern ridges of Afghanistan. Al-Qaeda fighters still huddling inside their caves have little chance of getting out alive. For the first time last week, forces loyal to three U.S.-backed bounty hunters clambered into the mountains to stage assaults on al-Qaeda redoubts, while as many as 40 U.S. commandos called in B-52-delivered bombs and precision-guided missiles.

Afghan soldiers claimed that a U.S. raid early last week may have killed al-Qaeda's strategic mastermind, Ayman al-Zawahiri, and its financial adviser, Ali Mahmood. The wife and children of al-Zawahiri were confirmed dead. The Afghan fighters slowly widened their forays, capturing low-elevation hollows used by al-Qaeda to store ammunition. The Pentagon said the proxy forces last week drove some of the 1,500 al-Qaeda troops higher into the Khyber Pass, forcing them to break into smaller units that U.S. bombers could then pick off.

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