Letter From Tora Bora

  • Share
  • Read Later

The Tora Bora mountains seen from the Pakistani village of Arawali

Tora Bora has returned to its natural state. No more journalist camps ringed with satellite dishes, no more exploding cluster bombs or caravans of clattering pick-up trucks with rocket-propelled grenade launchers jutting out like quills.

It is, once again, bandit country. Cars on the empty mountain roads scuff up enough dust to be seen a half hour away. Around any turn a posse of hungry villagers or unpaid soldiers could wait with Kalashnikovs. Harried peasants live almost exactly as they did 500 years ago — beggared, illiterate, and isolated, hidden in fortress-like compounds with lookout towers and gun slits. Trust is nowhere on display.

There is good reason that Al-Qaeda thrived here when Osama bin Laden set up his terrorist training camps five years ago. It brought money to an area where cooking pots are a major expense. It maintained close ties with local Pashtun tribal leaders. There was relative peace. Now those same villages, scattered over hundreds of square kilometers of lawless and rugged mountains, are providing haven for Al-Qaeda fighters on the run. A commander named Abdul Basir says he caught five wounded Arabs in a place called Seliman Khil three days after they had be routed from their camps. "Al-Qaeda pays a lot of money to the people there, so they protect them," he says.

If wounded soldiers can hide in these villages, so could bin Laden. I spent the past two weeks in Tora Bora living in a family's peanut shed. One morning I saw a B-52 drop a bomb on a village about 6 kilometers away, so I drove there in a pick-up truck to investigate. It occurred to me as I jounced through a dry riverbed that in all my time in Tora Bora I hadn't seen a single car drive in that direction. Barefoot children who heard the engine ran to the doorways to watch blankly as I passed.

I am fairly certain that no solider searched that village even though it was far more accessible than those higher in the mountains. The bomb, it turned out, had fallen harmlessly in an open field, but the hostility I felt there was obvious. I couldn't imagine those people turning bin Laden over to the US even for the promise of $25 million. No government here keeps its promises — why should one that bombs them?

Even with the Taliban gone, bin Laden has the right connections to disappear. His fairy godfather in the Tora Bora region is a warlord named Younis Khalis, who invited him to Afghanistan in 1996 after even Sudan didn't want him. Khalis lives in an adobe compound a short distance from Jalalabad on the road to Tora Bora. He was close with the Taliban, which used his land as a parking lot for its tanks — more than a dozen of them were blown apart by US missiles and now lie wrecked on Khalis's land. Khalis himself is old and incapacitated, but he and his followers once excelled at smuggling Mujahidin fighters through Tora Bora during the war against Russia. His followers could easily arrange safe houses.

This is all speculation, of course. It is possible that bin Laden is long gone. Sources who say he was in Tora Bora in the first place are notoriously unreliable. Local commanders grew more certain he was here the more they thought the U.S. would pay them to fight. The Pentagon said it heard him on a radio but that can be faked. People living near his city home in Jalalabad can't agree whether they have seen him in recent years, and Al-Qaeda prisoners say he fled two weeks ago.

But who believes a terrorist? It is also possible that he is dead, smothered in a collapsed cave or buried under a remote crag by comrades who will later insist that he escaped. Ideally, someone should peek behind each stone and stump in this massive area, but the Mujahidin fighters who drove Al-Qaeda from its bases certainly won't. Most have already withdrawn to Jalalabad. Besides, they have been so neglected by their commanders that they have little incentive to fight.

Those commanders are believed to have received money from the U.S., but there was no evidence of that in the field. Soldiers who until recently lived in Pakistani refugee camps braved the freezing mountain winds with only wool shawls, fought their way up sixty degree slopes in open toed sandals and haven't been paid ever. That leaves the U.S. to do the searching, but the hundred or so special operatives in the area simply can not cover enough ground.

So expect a long wait for the mystery of bin Laden's great escape to resolve. A man named Atiqualla is well positioned to know where bin Laden is. He's an assistant to a top commander privy to secret discussions, and he interrogated a dozen Arab prisoners. Some told him they had seen bin Laden recently, other said they hadn't. The bottom line, Atiqualla says, is "no one has any idea."