Internet Anthropologist Think Tank: Tora Bora Goat trails and entrails

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    Saturday, August 25, 2007

    Tora Bora Goat trails and entrails

    Malawa Valley

    Map view

    Cave area

    Binnys cave area

    TRIBAL LEADER, from Patki ( killied )

    Aug. 26, 2007 - One way or another, Afghanistan always comes to this: a group of men of varying degrees of fitness sweating up goat-steep mountainsides, wondering whether trouble will come from ahead, behind or above, and marveling at how anyone can fight in a place like this, in whatever war is going on at the time. The war against the Soviets, the wars between the warlords, the war of the Talibs, the Taliban vs. the Northern Alliance, the American invasion and, now, the apparently endless hunt for Al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden. In all this, one place, Tora Bora, played a starring role, and still does.

    There used to be a good mountain road up to the entrance to bin Laden's cave complex in the Tora Bora area of Afghanistan's Spin Ghar, or White Mountains, substantial enough for jeeps and even tanks—after all, Osama was an engineer, and that was the talent he first brought to bear when he joined the jihad against the Soviets.

    Now, however, our car could take us only as far as a cemetery for Arab fighters, dating from the December 2001 U.S. bombing campaign, a sloping dirt-and-rock plot marked by a few dozen flattish stones stuck in the earth, no inscriptions. With a local tribal chief known as the Hajji (an honorific conferred on those who have made the pilgrimmage to Mecca) as a guide, we had donned Afghan dress and head scarves and enlisted a single armed guard, also in civilian clothes.

    The Hajji, who guided us on condition he not be named, said he wanted to keep as low a profile as possible. As we prepared to set out on foot, an Afghan who identified himself as an intelligence officer, well-known to the chief, insisted on reporting our presence to one of his counterparts higher up, and then accompanying us; he was armed with a 9mm pistol and carried a mobile phone.

    Remarkably, even at 8,000 feet, our eventual destination, there would still be a signal on the Afghan cell-phone network. He knew we weren't allowed there, but saw no harm in the visit.

    The Hajji was worried most of all about American airstrikes, hence our own lack of visible firepower, but also about Taliban sympathizers in the area, and even the possibility that insurgents may have been missed on the sweep of this part of the Tora Bora area, which had been completed only five days earlier. He was also worried we might run into locals less than thrilled at seeing an American; he told us about a man who had lost his wife and eight children to the U.S. bombing of Tora Bora in 2001, and just the week before had lost another four children by his new wife in the latest bombing campaign.

    The trail climbed up rock scree, and along remnants of what was once a wide road cut by bulldozers into the mountainsides, which were lightly forested and heavily bouldered. In some places landslides had eroded the roadbed; in others, bombs had clearly done the job. The higher we got, the more craters we saw, some of them 30 or 40 feet across. In many places, the pebbles were mixed with bits of shrapnel, bullet casings, rusted bullets and among the rocks were larger metal pieces of military detritus, most of it quite old, as well as mysterious chunks of burnt polyurethanelike foam, with military markings. Here and there were what looked like recently constructed firing positions, rocks piled into a crude shelter high above the path.

    Frequently we saw leaflets, apparently dropped from American aircraft, warning locals against cooperating with the Taliban and Al Qaeda. "Insurgents and terrorists are not your friends," one read in Pashtu, "they will only bring trouble to you if you give them aid", and, "Afghan troops and ISAF [NATO's International Security Assistance Force] and American troops will hunt down people who shelter terrorists." The text was accompanied by garish pictures of evil-looking masked men with glaring white eyes; one had the word OSAMA in a red circle with a diagonal slash through it, like an international no-parking sign. Another showed villagers burying their dead, the apparent point being that that would be the fate of those who help terrorists. Strangely, our translators said, the leaflets were riddled with blatant grammatical errors, as if penned by a child.

    After an hour's climb, we halted and took cover after spotting a column of armed men higher up, on an intersecting ridge; our guard and the intelligence official went ahead, returning satisfied that they were just smugglers heading to Pakistan, about a five-hour walk farther up. Later we came across a series of burned-out Soviet tanks with triumphal Arab graffiti on them, leftovers from the struggle against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.

    Our guides kept a careful ear out for the sound of aircraft, stopping occasionally for complete silence to be sure none were near. In Afghanistan, there have been far too many cases of civilians mistakenly bombed, especially in places like this. Every night for the past two weeks, until just two days earlier, there had been heavy bombing throughout Tora Bora, lasting much of the night. Officially, U.S. military spokesmen have been saying very little about the operation. Apparently it began in response to a roadside bomb that killed three American soldiers and an Afghan interpreter on Aug. 11—the three were Special Forces troops, two from the Second Battalion Seventh Special Forces Group, and one from the 3-45 Psychological Operations Company, Second PsyOp Group. According to the Hajji, the ambush took place along this path; it was described in the military death report as a combination IED and small-arms-fire attack.

    ...that hundreds of U.S. and Afghan troops, backed by airstrikes, had launched an operation in the Tora Bora area in response to the infiltration of "hundreds of foreign fighters.

    All requests by media to embed with the forces in Tora Bora were turned down, with the advice that no embeds were anticipated—which is unusual, except for Special Forces ops. "Information on Tora Bora is not to be shared, that is the guidance we've had," said Lt. Cmdr. Brenda Steele, a NATO spokesman in Kabul, queried for an update last week. "It's classified." It seems odd, given that diplomats in Kabul said they were being told the operation was a great success and was now in the mopping-up stages. Even our Afghan intelligence officer said he had been impressed, a few civilian casualties notwithstanding. "This is the best operation the Americans have done here in six years," he said.

    There have been unconfirmed reports that Gen. Dan McNeil, who is both American commander in Afghanistan and NATO's ISAF commander, has deployed NATO's theater reserve troops, from the 82nd Airborne, ( WE HAVE CONFIRMED THIS ) on the operation. No one is commenting, but locals have reported seeing heliborne deployments of troops, often rappeling down or being lowered from helicopters as they hovered over terrain too rough and steep for landings. And at the airport in Jalalabad, witnesses have seen scores of C-130 aircraft on the aprons, an unusually large number for the area.

    they received intelligence that up to 500 Qaeda and Taliban forces had infiltrated into the region, fleeing from Waziristan, Pakistan, and transiting through Kurram, the tribal agency closest to Tora Bora, and through which Osama bin Laden had made his 2001 escape. The operation consisted of heavy bombing, both day and night, followed by deployment of airborne troops blocking escape routes to Pakistan, while American and Afghan ground forces advanced up the Tora Bora mountains from the north. In all, 55 Taliban and Qaeda fighters were killed and 57 taken prisoner, he said; among the prisoners were Uzbeks, Chechens, Arabs and Afghans. "They are not fighting any longer," he said. "They can't fight, they are just hiding. And day by day, step by step, we are finding them and going on."

    they began getting reports from villagers in the area who were friendly to the Taliban that among the infiltrators was "the sheik," referring to bin Laden. None of the villagers had any evidence of that but were just repeating rumors they'd heard from others. He put little stock in it but did say he thought there may be high-ranking Al Qaeda among the refugees. Another Afghan official, Police Col. Abadullah Talwar, head of the Provincial Coordinating Council, a security body established by the Americans in Jalalabad, told NEWSWEEK his officers had also been hearing rumors among locals in the mountains that bin Laden was back in Tora Bora, but regarded them as unsubstantiated;...

    particularly unpopular among the tribals anyway.
    Standing Guard: An Afghan national policeman armed with an RPG stands outside of an old Al Qaeda training ground near Jalalabad on Aug. 20
    Jason P. Howe / WPN for Newsweek
    Standing Guard: An Afghan national policeman armed with an RPG stands outside of an old Al Qaeda training ground near Jalalabad on Aug. 20

    A Western military official with extensive experience on both sides of the border in this area partly corroborated the Afghan military's account, although he said the Tora Bora fighters did not come from Pakistan, but from other parts of Afghanistan. “There was good reason to believe there were serious players there,” he said, declining to be identified because he was not authorized to speak to the press.

    After two hours' hike, we reached approximately 8,000 feet and the entrance to the Tora Bora caves complex, just above a gorge known as the Malawa valley. The steep slopes were heavily terraced, and for the first time in recent years, the terraces were green with crops, mostly corn, as well as vegetables, and some stands of tall sunflowers. Goats grazed in the unplanted expanses. Clouds hung low around the surrounding peaks, and the trace of the supply road came to an abrupt end just after another rusted and blasted Soviet tank. Our guard climbed to a spot of high ground and set a picket; the Hajji did the same a little ways on. A short walk further and there were a few houses that had recently been restored, little more than stone huts against the slopes, with a smattering of a dozen children and men, the women out of sight. Scattered around were timber- and stone-buttressed entryways to what had been the caves, now filled with rubble, and connected by a defensive trench system a few dozen yards in extent. Two years earlier, French demolition teams had come here and destroyed the major caves, setting sapper charges deep within them, although the broader area has hundreds of others.

    Our guides, who had been here many times in the past (one of them had been a Qaeda liaison for the mujahedin in the jihad days), insisted these were the main caves where Osama had hidden during the Tora Bora battle. Up close, they certainly didn't seem likely to harbor elevator shafts and vast underground stores. They were unprepossessing to say the least, even given a lot of demolition works; the shafts appeared narrow, earthen-walled; the supporting timbers roughhewn and slapdash, hardly SMERSH-like. We were unable, of course, to enter. Nearby, on a somewhat wider than usual ledge looking out over the Malawa gorge, there was what the Hajji and the intelligence officer described as Osama's swimming pool, a rock-walled rectangular cavity about 10 yards by three, and three yards deep, on the uphill side, half a yard deep on the long side facing the gorge. The pool, now bone dry, had been spring-fed, with the remnants of a slate channel on the uphill side still visible. Although cement had flaked off the rock lining and part of the low side of the pool had crumbled, the design suggested it had been a sort of crude infinity pool, with the infinity side facing the view, quite a dramatic one down to the heart of the Spin Ghar range. What's a Saudi millionaire, without a pool he doesn't swim in?

    The local farmers were apparently welcoming, offering tea and showing us around. They said they were the original residents here, having left during the Soviet period when jihadis moved in to the area, and only returning from Pakistani refugee camps in the course of the past year. American ground forces, they said, had passed through five days earlier [about Aug. 16], with Taliban insurgents fleeing ahead of them. American patrols had come through as recently as two days before, and higher in the mountains they had seen helicopters offloading troops regularly. The military's interpreters had warned them to leave the area while bombardments were going on, and many of them had; this group of farmers had only returned here the day before, after a night with no apparent bombing. "It was so bad I couldn't sleep for days, the bombs, the helicopters flying over," said Nour Mohammed, 60. "All the night long." In Suleiman Kheil, the next valley over, hundreds of families had been evacuated—a figure confirmed by Nangarhar provincial officials. Some of the bombs had damaged their irrigation works, they said: "Everything we have is here, what are we going to do?" The damage didn't seem dramatic; the crops in the fields were green and healthy. As for Osama bin Laden? "I've never met him so I have no opinion about him," Nour Mohammed said diplomatically. The $50 million reward? Never heard of it.

    While we were talking, one of the local men had gone off to his house. The intelligence officer, an impressively devious man, followed him and eavesdropped as he made a mobile phone call to someone: "There are journalists here and they are asking about the Taliban."

    The intelligence officer was concerned enough to insist that we leave, and it sounded like a good idea. We quaffed the thin yellow tea, thanked our hosts politely and headed back. It was easier going but seemed to take a lot longer, as downhill hikes often do. Partly, it was knowing that bomb-layers know that what goes up, must come down. Partly, it was the knowledge that for some of us, it would almost certainly not be the last time we would return to Tora Bora.

    With Ron Moreau in Islamabad


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