September 11, 2005


Lost at Tora Bora (MARY ANNE WEAVER, 9/11/05, NY Times Magazine)

Well past midnight one morning in early December 2001, according to American intelligence officials, Osama bin Laden sat with a group of top aides - including members of his elite international 055 Brigade - in the mountainous redoubt of Tora Bora in eastern Afghanistan. Outside, it was blustery and bitterly cold; many of the passes of the White Mountains, of which Tora Bora forms a part, were already blocked by snow. But inside the cave complex, where bin Laden had sought his final refuge from the American war in Afghanistan - a war in which Washington, that October, had struck back for the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks - bin Laden munched on olives and sipped sugary mint tea. He was dressed in his signature camouflage jacket, and a Kalashnikov rested by his side. Captured Qaeda fighters, interviewed separately, told American interrogators that they recalled an address that bin Laden had made to his followers shortly before dawn. It concerned martyrdom. American bombs, including a 15,000-pound "daisy cutter," were raining from the sky and pulverizing a number of the Tora Bora caves. [...]

The American bombardment of Tora Bora, which had been going on for a month, yielded to saturation airstrikes on Nov. 30 in anticipation of the ground war. Hundreds of civilians died that weekend, along with a number of Afghan fighters, according to Hajji Zaman, who had already dispatched tribal elders from the region to plead with bin Laden's commanders to abandon Tora Bora. Three days later, on Dec. 3, in one of the war's more shambolic moments, Hazarat Ali announced that the ground offensive would begin. Word quickly spread through the villages and towns, and hundreds of ill-prepared men rushed to the mountain's base. The timing of the call to war was so unexpected that Hajji Zahir, one of its three lead commanders, told journalists at the time that he nearly slept through it.

On a map, it was little more than a mile from the bottom of the White Mountains to the first tier of the Qaeda caves, but the snow was thick and the slopes were steep and, for the Afghan fighters, it was a three-hour climb. They were ambushed nearly as soon as they arrived. The battle lasted for only 10 minutes before bin Laden's fighters disappeared up the slope and the Afghans limped away. Over the coming days, a pattern would emerge: the Afghans would strike, then retreat. On some occasions, a cave would change hands twice in one day. It was only on the third day of the battle that the three dozen Special Forces troops arrived. But their mission was strictly limited to assisting and advising and calling in air strikes, according to the orders of Gen. Tommy Franks, the head of U.S. Central Command, who was running the war from his headquarters in Tampa, Fla.

Even after the arrival of the Special Forces, the Afghan militias were making little headway in their efforts to assault the Qaeda caves - largely as a result of heavier resistance than they had expected - despite having launched simultaneous attacks from the east, west and north. They had sent none of their forces to the south, where the highest peaks of the White Mountains are bisected by the border with Pakistan. The commanders, according to news reports, argued vehemently among themselves on what the conditions on the southern side of the mountain were: some insisted it was uncrossable, closed in by snow; other commanders were far less sure.

By now, the Taliban's stronghold in Kandahar had fallen or, more correctly, had been abandoned by the soldiers of the regime. The Taliban retreat from Kandahar was emblematic of the war. None of Afghanistan's cities had been won by force alone. Taliban fighters, after intense bombing, had simply made strategic withdrawals. A number of American officers were now convinced that this was about to happen at Tora Bora, too.

One of them was Brig. Gen. James N. Mattis, the commander of some 4,000 marines who had arrived in the Afghan theater by now. Mattis, along with another officer with whom I spoke, was convinced that with these numbers he could have surrounded and sealed off bin Laden's lair, as well as deployed troops to the most sensitive portions of the largely unpatrolled border with Pakistan. He argued strongly that he should be permitted to proceed to the Tora Bora caves. The general was turned down. An American intelligence official told me that the Bush administration later concluded that the refusal of Centcom to dispatch the marines - along with their failure to commit U.S. ground forces to Afghanistan generally - was the gravest error of the war.

A week or so after General Mattis's request was denied, the turning point in the battle of Tora Bora came. It was Dec. 12. Hajji Zaman had by now realized that the Qaeda fighters were better armed than his men and that they were also prepared to die rather than surrender to him. He was also becoming increasingly irritated with Hazarat Ali and with the snow. And in a few days the feast of Eid al-Fitr, which ends Ramadan, would begin. The stalemate, the Americans' surrogate commander decided, simply had to end. So, through a series of intermediaries and then directly, Hajji Zaman made radio contact with some of bin Laden's commanders and offered a cease-fire. The Americans were furious. The negotiations - to which Hazarat Ali acquiesced since he, too, was now holding secret talks with Al Qaeda - continued for hours. By the time they came to an end, Hajji Zaman's interlocutor, hidden somewhere in the caves above, was probably bin Laden's son Salah Uddin. If the Qaeda forces surrendered, Hajji Zaman's contact said, it would be only to the United Nations. Then he requested additional time to meet with other commanders. He would be back in touch by 8 the following morning, the younger bin Laden said.

American intelligence officials now believe that some 800 Qaeda fighters escaped Tora Bora that night. Others had already left; still others stayed behind, including bin Laden. "You've got to give him credit," Gary Schroen, a former C.I.A. officer who led the first American paramilitary team into Afghanistan in 2001, told me. "He stayed in Tora Bora until the bitter end." By the time the Afghan militias advanced to the last of the Tora Bora caves, no one of any significance remained: about 20 bedraggled young men were taken prisoner that day, Dec. 17.

On or about Dec. 16, 2001, according to American intelligence estimates, bin Laden left Tora Bora for the last time, accompanied by bodyguards and aides. Other Qaeda leaders dispersed by different routes, but bin Laden and his men are believed to have journeyed on horseback directly south toward Pakistan, crossing through the same mountain passes and over the same little-known smugglers' trails through which the C.I.A.'s convoys passed during the jihad years. And all along the route, in the dozens of villages and towns on both sides of the frontier, the Pashtun tribes would have lighted campfires along the way to guide the horsemen as they slowly continued through the snow and on toward the old Pakistani military outpost of Parachinar.

TTora Bora was the one time after the 9/11 attacks when United States operatives were confident they knew precisely where Osama bin Laden was and could have captured or killed him. Some have argued that it was Washington's last chance; others say that although it will be considerably more difficult now, bin Laden is not beyond our reach. But the stakes are considerably higher than they were nearly four years ago, and terrain and political sensibilities are far more our natural enemies now.

There is no indication that bin Laden ever left Pakistan after he crossed the border that snowy December night; nor is there any indication that he ever left the country's Pashtun tribal lands, moving from Parachinar to Waziristan, then north into Mohmand and Bajaur, one American intelligence official told me.

There's a perfectly logical conclusion to be drawn from the fact that the last time anyone could confidently state where Osama was he was at Tora Bora: he died there.

Posted by Orrin Judd at September 11, 2005 12:00 AM

That won't stop me from enjoying this little bedtime story with the heroic horsemen and the helpful villagers. Can't wait for the movie.

Posted by: David Hill, The Bronx at September 11, 2005 3:12 PM

In Mark Steyn's immortal words, OBL is "pushing up daisycutters."

Posted by: Matt Murphy at September 11, 2005 3:52 PM

The NYTimes and their acolytes need to believe in something. They don't believe in God, so they have to believe in Osama.

Posted by: Robert Schwartz [TypeKey Profile Page] at September 11, 2005 8:10 PM