TORA BORA, Afghanistan — In the jagged mountains of northeastern Afghanistan, where the U.S.-led war is peeled down to its original purpose of hunting down Osama bin Laden, Afghan men and boys are fighting for peace, for profit--or because it's the only livelihood they know.
In a land of perpetual battle, Bin Laden is an afterthought.
"This is a double war," said an Afghan commander, Haji Musa Khan. "We're fighting for our country. We've been fighting for years. America is fighting for Osama."
Overhead, U.S. warplanes, gleaming and remote, crisscross the sky. On the ground, Khan's soldiers creep along switchback trails, dodge mortar fire and tie blankets around their wounds because there are no bandages.
The Taliban regime has been shattered, but Bin Laden is still on the loose. Some officials believe he is hiding out in this vast cave complex, cared for and defended by hundreds of his most faithful warriors. Afghan forces have ringed the rock fortress, and the battle for Tora Bora is slowly getting underway. This could well be the Al Qaeda terror network's last stand in Afghanistan, a rare physical fight from a group that specializes in shadows, disappearances and hiding in plain sight.
The Afghan fighters crawling the mountains in tattered tennis shoes and old sweaters are improbable foot soldiers in the United States' push to capture Bin Laden. After several days of sporadic fighting, they haven't taken any prisoners and have no clear notion of how many of their opponents have been felled by blasts from tanks and bombs. They've attacked but gained little ground.
Unlike the United States, the Afghans are not fighting for a single goal. The middle-aged men fight because they've gotten into the habit. They are rare survivors of a generation all but exterminated by a quarter of a century of war. The graveyards of every village in Afghanistan are crowded with the tombs of "martyrs."
These men have seen guerrilla war and civil war. They have tumbled from one "holy war" to the next, have pitted themselves against the Soviets, then against the Taliban and most recently against Al Qaeda. They have fought each time with dreams of a peaceful Afghanistan.
"I only want to see my country in peace," said a soldier named Rohullah. "If we die, so what? We came here to die."
The young, meanwhile, fight because they came of age during wartime, when schools were closed and little boys went off to the battlefield. These soldiers were never formally trained--there isn't much you can teach a poor Afghan boy about war.
Asked when he learned how to fire a rocket launcher, 22-year-old Naikman shrugged and let out a huff of laughter.
"What do you mean? I always knew how," said, lowering his hand to knee level. "I learned when I was a baby."
Naikman gazed at the gun in his hands and bounced it gently to test its weight.
"I never went to school, and I don't know how to do anything," he said after a pause. "Just fighting."
Teenage Fighter Makes Light of Situation
By Saturday, the Afghan fighters had been pushed back out of the smattering of caves they'd seized on the first day of the Tora Bora campaign. While commanders disappeared into a daylong strategy session, their men squatted on hillsides, waiting for a shipment of guns and ammunition from the capital, Kabul. A teenage fighter made up a song: "All the leaders sit around talking while we are in trouble on the mountain."
The troubles are small surprise. Some of these soldiers lived in Tora Bora during the epic battles against occupying Soviet forces, back when the system of man-made caves served as a military base for moujahedeen, or holy warriors. Try as they might, the Soviets never managed to rout the rebels from the honeycombed network of caverns and tunnels.
"There is no easy way," Khan said. Many of the men, he acknowledged, view an assault on Tora Bora as little more than a suicide mission. The caves are impossible to approach without being spotted. Their floors are reportedly rigged with booby traps and mines.
"The Americans should come," said a 22-year-old soldier named Melanga. "They should stand in the front line, and we will get behind them."
In fact, U.S. and Afghan commanders are working together to attack the Al Qaeda holdouts at Tora Bora. The United States has sent a small number of Special Forces to the region and has unleashed a merciless torrent of bombs on the ridges and canyons of the redoubt. But the contributions are drastically different: The United States has money and bombs, the Afghans bodies and familiarity.
When the fighters speak of Bin Laden, it is with a mixture of disdain and awe. There is no love lost for the longtime foreign visitor, for reasons more personal than political. The tribal soldiers dislike the U.S. bombing campaign--even though they acknowledge its strategic usefulness--and they blame Bin Laden for provoking the violent wrath of the West.