TORA BORA, Afghanistan — America's decisive battle against al-Qaida in Afghanistan began in early December.
U.S. Central Command chief Gen. Tommy Franks told Congress in July that the attack started after two Afghan warlords, Hazrat Ali and Haji Zaman, told U.S. officers they intended to attack Tora Bora, al-Qaida's mountain stronghold.
Ali, Zaman and warlord Haji Qadir had taken control of the nearby city of Jalalabad from the Taliban on Nov. 15.
Ali's version of the attack on Tora Bora is different. He says the Americans came to him 10 days before the offensive started.
"They said they wanted to attack al-Qaida at Tora Bora," said Ali, an opium smuggler who was living in a refugee camp in Peshawar, Pakistan, when the CIA hired him to help fight the Taliban and al-Qaida. "I told them that we had been fighting them for six years, and that some things take patience. But when the Americans came, they told us they wanted to attack as soon as possible, so we attacked." The U.S. battle plan for Tora Bora, an area in the mountains near Jalalabad in eastern Afghanistan, followed the same blueprint as the one that had routed Taliban and al-Qaida forces in northern Afghanistan. American planes would bomb and the Afghans would attack on the ground. Small teams of U.S. and British special forces would direct airstrikes in support of the advancing Afghan forces.
From the start, American commanders had tried to limit the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan.
"We deliberately did not plan an operation in Afghanistan based on putting in 100,000 or 150,000 American troops along the model of the Soviets," Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz told a Senate panel in June.
Some military officers, however, thought their superiors' aversion to risk was crippling the effort to wipe out the terrorist group that had killed nearly 3,000 people in the United States. An angry allied officer stormed out of one planning meeting, calling the Americans' eagerness to avoid casualties at any cost "bloody stupid."
U.S. and allied military and intelligence officers also warned that the combination of precision bombing, special operations forces and anti-Taliban ground forces that had worked so well in driving the Taliban from northern Afghanistan might not work in the heartland of the country's dominant Pashtun tribe.
By the end of the first week of December, there was plenty of evidence that they were right.
U.S.-backed local commanders moved into Kandahar, the Taliban stronghold in southern Afghanistan, on Dec. 7, but they were more interested in jockeying for control of the city than in pursuing Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar and his lieutenants.
Some Taliban leaders fled south to Pakistan. Others returned home to the deeply conservative southern and eastern regions of the country. Hundreds of al-Qaida fighters vanished, making their way across the desert to Pakistan and Iran. All the while, more than 1,200 U.S. Marines sat at an abandoned air base in the desert 80 miles to the southwest.
"None of us here understood why we had the Marines playing at the desert strip," says a U.S. officer who asked that his name not be used. "They did a couple of small route interdiction things on the Lashkar Gah-Kandahar road, but other than that sat in the desert and then moved to Kandahar International (airport) and then to the American Embassy in Kabul. All during that time, Mullah Omar (and other Taliban leaders) were roaming all over the place in a state of shock. But they got over that, and now we have them burrowed into Pashtun tribal protection."
The episode, said a senior U.S. defense official, should have been a wake-up call.
"I think it has become clear to us that these guys do not share our interests all the time," said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Military and intelligence officials warned the U.S. commanders that their Afghan allies in Jalalabad, Hazrat Ali and Haji Zaman, were no more trustworthy than the warlords in Kandahar.
"Both Ali and Zaman are as crooked as snakes," said one U.S. officer, who also spoke on condition of anonymity.
Ali and Zaman were also bitter rivals, and they bickered about who would attack Tora Bora and from which direction. The two commanders had about 2,000 gunmen between them, but they were slow to move into place. They didn't launch their ground assault until four days after American planes started bombing. A third commander, Haji Zahir, joined the attack at the last minute with 400 of his fighters.
Zahir said he met briefly with the U.S. commander after he arrived with his men at the village of Pachir Agam, about five miles north of Tora Bora. They did little more than exchange pleasantries, Zahir claimed, and this was the first and only time he met with the Americans during the battle. As they had in Kandahar, the Americans left it to the Afghans to plan and carry out the ground assault.
"We didn't talk about our plan for fighting," said Zahir, the son of Haji Qadir. "The plan of attack depended on us _ myself, Hazrat Ali and Haji Zaman. The Americans were in charge of the bombing."
The Afghan commanders decided to launch a three-pronged attack. Zaman would position his forces an hour to the west at the village of Waziri Tangi. Ali would attack from the village of Milawa to the north. Zahir would put half his troops at Gherikil to the east and send the rest to block al-Qaida fighters from escaping south to Pakistan through the Sulemankhel valley. By this time, hundreds of other al-Qaida fighters already had escaped to Pakistan along these routes, according to villagers' reports.
Zahir contends that the assault was doomed from the beginning, because the Americans started bombing before the Afghans could position their forces on the escape routes to Pakistan.
"The bombing had no effect," said Zahir. "Before the Americans started bombing, we should have gone in and surrounded Tora Bora on the ground. That is the basic military way. But we weren't able to do so, because they started bombing first. So all of those ways were left open. In my opinion, this was the biggest mistake of the battle."
One of Zaman's tasks was to block escape routes through the Waziri Tangi valley, but he didn't do it, said Rullulah, a subcommander of Zaman's rival Ali.
The United States had made no plans to deploy its own or allied troops to block the exits. The 1,200 Marines stayed safely at their base in the desert near Kandahar.
"Ali and Zaman both assured our people that they had forces in blocking positions on the Spin Ghar when there were, in fact, no people there," said a U.S. military official, speaking on condition of anonymity. "So besides taking Afghans at their word, we had no plans to bring up sufficient forces to make up for perfidy."
Some American intelligence officers smelled treachery from the start. Reconnaissance pictures showed what looked to be campfires along the trails crossing the mountains into Pakistan, at altitudes above 10,000 feet. The Afghans told the Americans that the fires belonged to sheepherders, who were not to be attacked.
"Our guys in Afghanistan bought the Afghan story," said one military official. "Sheep have trouble finding food under 2 or 3 feet of snow and sheepherders usually stay home when the temperature is zero. They were exfiltrators, pure and simple."
Those who got away appear to have had help.
Even before the ground attack began, Zaman and Ali were trying to negotiate an al-Qaida surrender. They told the al-Qaida forces that if they gave up their weapons, they would not be killed. Bin Laden's Arabs, Chechens and Uzbeks refused.
"I will continue jihad (holy war) even after my death," one al-Qaida commander said in Arabic over the radio. "We are not afraid of anything, and if I were to die, either way we win."
Nevertheless, Zaman declared a cease-fire on the second day of the attack, claiming that the Arabs and other foreigners wanted to reconsider. They asked for a 24-hour truce; Zaman gave them until 8 the next morning. But Ali and Zahir claimed no deal could be made, and a few hours later ordered their Afghan fighters to resume the attack. The American bombing never stopped. But Zaman had left the escape route through the Waziri Tangi valley open.
The Arabs said there were only 82 al-Qaida fighters at Tora Bora, according to Janullah Hashimzada, a Pakistani journalist who was present and spoke to one of them by radio.
Pentagon officials initially estimated that there were 2,000 al-Qaida fighters at Tora Bora. Now they think there were 1,000 to 1,100.
Forty-one al-Qaida fighters surrendered to Zaman and were taken to jail in Jalalabad, Hashimzada said.
Ali said he was infuriated by the cease-fire because he thought it was a ploy to give the besieged al-Qaida and Taliban time to escape. It also infuriated the Americans. One U.S. officer angrily told the three Afghan commanders: "We are here to destroy, destroy, destroy."
U.S. intelligence officials blame Zaman for letting al-Qaida fighters and leaders escape through his lines. A Pakistani official told Knight Ridder that intelligence reports also suggest that Ali probably took payoffs to let them go. The official said some al-Qaida members paid $30,000 to $40,000 each to either Ali or Zaman for safe passage out of Tora Bora.
"Of the 4,000 people who escaped from there, about 50 to 80 were top leaders of al-Qaida," said the Pakistani official. Most of them paid bribes, he said.
In fairness, Tora Bora is some of the roughest country in a rough country.
"When the Russians came, they would try to catch us there, but they never could," said Haji Din Mohammed, a former resistance leader who is now the governor of Nangarhar province, whose capital is Jalalabad. "There are forests and many small valleys where you can hide. If you had 1,000 people, then maybe you could seal off those areas, but it would be difficult."
It is only about one and a half miles in a straight line from where the Afghans began their ground attack to al-Qaida's last line of defense, a network of gun emplacements overlooking the Milawa valley.
The hilly, rocky terrain resembles Colorado. The low ground at Tora Bora is at 6,000 feet. The highest peaks along the Pakistani border reach more than 13,000 feet. Small, twisted trees dot the area, providing a fair amount of cover. Footpaths and a few rough roads lace through the hills like spider veins.
"There are many ways to go," said Malik Nizar, the deputy governor of Nangarhar and another veteran of the Soviet occupation. "That is why al-Qaida was able to escape."
Several midlevel Afghan commanders complained that equipment and ammunition shortages, along with cold and snow, hindered their progress.
But America's Afghan allies clearly had little stomach for a fight. "Everyone knows that two Arabs are enough for 40 other men," said Gen. Mohammed Musa, Ali's top commander.
It took the Afghans six days to advance to al-Qaida's middle line of defense. The Afghans moved forward only after American B-52s and other aircraft had cleared the way, said Dost Mohammed, another of Ali's subcommanders.
The Arabs fought like cornered men, raking the hills with machine gun fire, 20 mm cannons and mortars from their dug-in positions.
"I've been a mujahid (Islamic warrior) for 20 years, but this was the most intense fighting I have ever seen in my life. Even if I were to train my soldiers for the next 10 years, they couldn't fight anything like that," said Haftab Ghul, who led 240 men under Zahir.
It took the Afghans three more days to clear out the last al-Qaida positions, a series of dug-in gun pits scattered along the top of the ridgeline on the other side of the valley, where they captured 22 prisoners.
"When we got into the mountains, it was covered with snow and ice," said Sian Mohammed, one of Zahir's chief lieutenants. "They were too weak from their wounds and they had no food. They couldn't escape because of the snow. We told them to give themselves up and that we wouldn't hurt them. They surrendered."
For all the talk of fierce fighting, fewer than a few dozen Afghans were killed and wounded.
The Afghans claimed to have eliminated al-Qaida resistance by Dec. 16. American bombs stopped falling in the nearby mountains soon after.
Ali thinks there were 1,100 al-Qaida fighters at Tora Bora, 300 of whom were killed. Other commanders claim the figure was much lower, suggesting that the battle may have been nothing more than a rear-guard action by a couple of hundred fighters to cover the escape of the main al-Qaida columns.
"The majority of them escaped before the bombing," said Musa, the commander who fought for Ali. "Those who remained at Tora Bora wanted to fight and die."
There are few graves or other evidence in these mountains and valleys to account for the hundreds of al-Qaida fighters who U.S. officials claimed were killed.
After the fighting at Tora Bora ended, Rear Adm. John D. Stufflebeem, then the deputy director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Afghan and American troops were methodically searching caves at Tora Bora and tracking al-Qaida forces who were trying to escape to Pakistan.
But a visit to Tora Bora today makes it hard to understand how the cave search could have taken weeks. The caves that are there can easily be explored in an hour. When asked if American bombs destroyed deeper, more extensive caves, Afghan gunmen who fought at Tora Bora say there were never any such structures to destroy.
There is no evidence of the hundreds of caves that some U.S. military officials said were part of a massive underground cave complex where al-Qaida fighters hunkered down.
There are fewer than a dozen caves at Tora Bora. None is deeper than 25 feet. There are no connecting tunnels. Nearly all the caves are smaller than an average bedroom. There is no evidence that American bombs destroyed larger structures.
"Those 'artist renderings' that had the caves looking like Titan (missile) silos were really garbage," said a U.S. intelligence official.
There may have been more elaborate al-Qaida cave complexes, dug during the war against the Soviets and expanded with money from bin Laden's personal fortune, the official said, perhaps not at Tora Bora but at a place called Zawar Khili, some 70 miles to the south.
Pakistani officials think that as many as 4,000 al-Qaida and Taliban fighters crossed into Pakistan's tribal areas by the end of December. A U.S. intelligence official said he thought that about 1,000 al-Qaida fighters, including some of the group's most important leaders, escaped the American dragnet at Tora Bora.
Those who made it safely across the border were helped not only by friendly tribesmen but also by sympathetic members of Pakistan's powerful Inter-Services Intelligence agency, according to a senior official with links to the agency, who spoke on condition of anonymity. Others dispute this.
"If the ISI is rogue, then the army is rogue, and if the army is rogue, then the whole government is rogue," said retired Gen. Hamid Gul, who ran the ISI from 1987 to 1989. "It is simply not possible."
Underground radical groups helped some fugitive al-Qaida members obtain Pakistani passports, which they used to flee to such countries as Iraq, Yemen and Saudi Arabia, according to Pakistani intelligence sources. Others slipped into Peshawar, a city that served as headquarters to the anti-Soviet Afghan resistance in the 1980s and remains a hotbed of militancy.
U.S. special forces now have established a chain of bases along the Afghan-Pakistani border, but another winter is bringing new dangers. Officials worry that al-Qaida and Taliban survivors of Tora Bora are still hiding along the border, waiting for the clouds and snow to ground the Air Force's A-10s and AC-130s and leave the American soldiers who are guarding the border vulnerable to ambushes.
(Knight Ridder correspondent Mushtaq Yusufzai contributed to this report.)
(Editors' note: Knight Ridder Pentagon reporter Drew Brown and Detroit Free Press photographer David Gilkey recently returned to the Afghan battlefield at Tora Bora, where last December U.S. commanders thought they had cornered Osama bin Laden and more than 1,000 al-Qaida fighters. They interviewed Afghan fighters, retraced the terrorists' escape routes to Pakistan and talked to Pakistani intelligence officers who were tracking bin Laden. Their story explains how and why the United States lost its best chance to capture or kill bin Laden and decimate al-Qaida.)