The Last Round-Up: Into the Caves

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Anti-Taliban fighters near Tora Bora

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The task of stabilizing Kandahar may eventually fall to American troops, but U.S. commanders made clear that their top priority in the region was the capture of Omar. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld stopped short of an ironclad demand that Omar be turned over to U.S. troops once he is caught, but warned that American support for the new government hinged on its finding Omar and meting out a sufficient punishment. Karzai told TIME that Omar will "face trial in Afghanistan for his crimes. But first, we'll have to provide enough solid evidence for a case against him." That comment probably did not lift the heart of Rumsfeld, and U.S. officials dropped broad hints that they don't want to see the Taliban leader make it that far.

The dilemma for the Pentagon is that until it beefs up the 2,000-strong American ground force and authorizes it to take control of the manhunt, the U.S. military can only cajole the Afghan forces to do what it wants. In eastern Afghanistan, the U.S. has plied one bin Laden hunter, Haji Zaman, with $100 for each of his soldiers. The $25 million bounty promised to the warlord who captures bin Laden has created a dash for the Saudi's throat between Zaman and two rival commanders, Hazrat Ali and Haji Qadir. U.S. officials treated claims of bin Laden sightings in Tora Bora with skepticism, knowing that the warlords are angling to procure more funds for the hunt. The commander who finds bin Laden could also win control of Jalalabad and the smuggling route through the Khyber Pass into Pakistan.

None of the three warlords appears strong enough to capture bin Laden on his own. Zaman made his name as a mujahedin commander fighting the Soviets, then fled to Dijon, France, when the Taliban took Jalalabad in 1997. Ali's soldiers are the most hardened fighters in the gang chasing bin Laden. But Ali, who is not a Pashtun, commands little support among mountain villagers. Qadir marshals the weakest militia but controls a former Taliban ammunition compound chock full of rocket-propelled grenades, mortars and tank shells.

With the competing loyalties of the men venturing into Tora Bora, the cave assault has been halting. The first team of soldiers dispatched by Ali to Tora Bora disarmed groups of Zaman loyalists opposed to al-Qaeda. Another group of Zaman's forces tried to set up a base in the town of Pachir, within sight of Tora Bora; the next night a U.S. warplane struck the building, killing everyone inside. The commanders greeted reports of limited advances in the mountains with tempered enthusiasm, mindful of the difficulty of penetrating such a labyrinthine redoubt.

Though the American commanders still counseled patience last week, they will not put up with inaction for long. Afghan forces told TIME they spotted U.S. and British commandos heading into the Tora Bora mountains last week, traveling in pairs, shouldering heavy supplies and carrying rifles. There were more soldiers on the way, backed by U.S. gunships, bombers and Predator drones, ready to pounce on their prey. It's a safe bet that if bin Laden is holed up in the snowdrifts of Tora Bora, with his hosts defeated and on the run, he still harbors hopes of making a great escape. It's a safer bet that the U.S. would love to see him try.

--Reported by Hannah Bloch/Islamabad, Matthew Forney/ Tora Bora, Terry McCarthy/Kabul, Tim McGirk, Kamal Haider and Rahimullah Yusufzai/Quetta and Mark Thompson/Washington

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