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The Afghan Warnings That Went Unheeded at Tora Bora

Asia: U.S.' decision not to send in its own ground troops might have enabled Bin Laden to escape, officials acknowledge.

April 25, 2002|MEGAN K. STACK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

TORA BORA, Afghanistan — As bombs rumbled in the dizzying mountains that ribbon the Pakistani border, anti-Taliban commander Haji Mohammed Zaman paced impatiently.

On that hard, wintry December day, Zaman's troops were hunting for the world's most wanted man--and they weren't having much luck. Day after day they captured, then lost, the same ground. His soldiers were shivering, hungry and losing their zeal. Zaman was frustrated.

"If America wants to capture Osama, why aren't they trying?" he complained.

According to the commander's intelligence, Osama bin Laden was hunkered down in the mountains, waiting out the airstrikes in deep underground caverns. For weeks, Zaman had pressed the United States for more weapons, supplies and money to hunt the Al Qaeda chief, but Americans regarded the Afghan commander's information with suspicion.

Now, months later, interrogation of captured Al Qaeda fighters has reportedly led the Bush administration to conclude that Bin Laden was, indeed, hiding out in the mountain redoubt. He might have escaped by slipping over the border into wild tribal zones of Pakistan--just as anti-Taliban commanders warned.

In hindsight, some U.S. officials have lamented the decision to fight the battle of Tora Bora with bombs and Afghan foot soldiers instead of sending in U.S. ground troops.

But during the siege, a Western diplomat in the region characterized Zaman and other tribal warlords as "parasites" who were inflating reports of Al Qaeda's presence in hopes of milking money and supplies from the United States.

If the United States was hesitant to trust the Afghan commanders, it wasn't for nothing. It was impossible to say what invisible laces of sympathy ran between the Afghans and their Al Qaeda foes. There was the bond of Islam. In candid moments, most of the anti-Taliban soldiers admitted that they'd rather see the terrorists flee than have to slaughter them.

Then there were mercenary motivations: Some Afghans reportedly ferried desperate, wealthy terrorists to the Pakistani line for a pretty price.

In a climate of mistrust and uncertainty--and daunted by a forbidding terrain--the U.S. military balked at sending troops.

The Pentagon stands by that decision. Last week, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said the United States couldn't be sure of Bin Laden's whereabouts.

In the swirl of second-guessing, some military officials say the Afghans fumbled, or even helped the terrorist chieftain evade capture. But as the battle unfolded, local warriors repeatedly warned of Al Qaeda members' probable--even imminent--escape.

A gap in strategies was obvious from the beginning: Instead of sending ground troops, U.S. warplanes flew overhead and dropped "daisy cutter" bombs and cruise missiles. The United States set a $25-million bounty on Bin Laden's head in hopes of appealing to local mercenaries.

Afghans were skeptical. Bombs alone would never be enough to destroy the network of caves, they said. After all, they pointed out, Soviet forces spent years attacking Tora Bora, to little effect. The caves could be attacked and searched only on foot, they warned, and the sooner the better. As for the bounty, the men shrugged it off. Even if they bagged the famed fugitive, they didn't expect to see a single cent.

"That money is for our commanders," said a soldier named Rohullah.

The Afghans pleaded for guns, food, coats and money. If they were properly outfitted, they said, they could storm Tora Bora and rout Bin Laden.

But as the weeks passed, as biting winter brought the first snow clouds--and as U.S. hesitation to send ground troops to the region became apparent--local commanders spoke with impatience and, finally, bewilderment.

"I don't think the United States wants to capture Osama," Mohammed Alem, a top aide to Zaman, said in late November. "We know where he is, we tell them and they do nothing. So they are not as serious as they say they are."

When the Northern Alliance stormed into the capital, Kabul, on Nov. 13, provincial Taliban governments dissolved throughout eastern Afghanistan, and Zaman came riding over the Khyber Pass from Pakistan. Guarded by a young, ragged army, he returned to his family's stone house in Jalalabad and went to work plotting the ouster of "Arabs" who he insisted were hiding in the mountains.

Zaman told anybody who would listen that Bin Laden had moved a few hours south to Tora Bora. He told the tale of a long convoy of Al Qaeda pickup trucks that rumbled out of the city and crept up into the hills. Accompanied by a tribal elder from the Pakistani region of Parachinar, Bin Laden had headed for Tora Bora, Zaman said. Villagers had watched him pass.

"You know the infrastructure of Al Qaeda has broken down completely," Zaman said in November. "If the allies help us, we can get them out of Tora Bora."

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