Al-Qaida's last stand

After I dodged a mortar shell on the front lines and met with mujahedin fighters who weren't so lucky, the Eastern Alliance declared victory -- again.

Published December 17, 2001 9:49PM (EST)

The Eastern Alliance mujahedin paraded their al-Qaida captives through the hardscrabble farming villages here at the foot of the Tora Bora Monday, as U.S. airstrikes slowed down, and reports continued of only scattered fighting deep in the snowy mountains.

A day before, Alliance commanders said their forces had overrun the last of al-Qaida's Tora Bora caves, killing more than 200 foreign fighters mostly from the Middle East, capturing some 25 others and sending hundreds more fleeing toward the nearby Pakistani border as bin Laden himself remained missing. Whether he turns up -- and whether he turns up alive -- the siege of Tora Bora seems to be coming to an end.

But only after a long week that saw a possible surrender come and go in what many think is al-Qaida's last stand. It didn't prevent al-Qaida from issuing a curious, ominous, handwritten plea to its Muslim brothers in the mujahedin opposition to stop fighting, and leave the combat to the Americans. And it was a week that started with a much closer look at the fighting than I'd anticipated, and than I'd been prepared for.

After it became clear that Tora Bora had emerged as the latest -- and perhaps final -- large battle on this war against al-Qaida, I had made my way from nearby Jalalabad, pressing my hired Tora Bora guide, local journalist Noor Rahman, to somehow get me and my teenage translator, Naveed Ahmad, past the mujahedin checkpoints that were stopping other journalists on the spiny road twisting through the dusty Tora Bora foothills, known as Meliva, and up to the front lines.

After some haggling, he did. And on Monday, Noor grinningly held my hand, as Afghan men commonly do, as we hiked up to mujahedin positions with about six Alliance soldiers, occasionally pausing to wait for Naveed, who had been vomiting with car sickness since we left Jalalabad that morning.

Atop the ridge, the mujahedin field commander in the area, Shah Lala, pointed into the distance toward a hilltop he said Al-Qaida fighters were holding. I couldn't see anything and told him I wanted to go to the next ridge for a better view, eyeing him skeptically with thoughts that this front-line tour might be little more than a dog-and-pony show at a quiet backside guard post. That's when the first mortar shell went up with a puff of smoke, from the area where we had just been looking. Shah Lala and other mujahedin told me to dive for cover.

I skidded about 10 feet down and crouched behind a huge rock with Naveed, who was pale and breathless but seemed much calmer than I was. The mujahedin and Noor rose from their cover nearby, along the backside of the slope, whooping and laughing, even as the dust from the blast was still hanging in the air. But Naveed and I stayed down on the advice of another reporter who'd come with us, who said mortars usually fell in threes and that more were probably on the way.

The second explosion hit the top of the rock where Naveed and I hid. It felt like someone had punched me in the back of my head and stomach at once as I closed my eyes against a spray of flying stones.

"Do you believe it's the front line now?" said Naveed, rake-thin in a tattered sweater, with the shadow of his first mustache barely hanging on his upper lip. "They're firing on us. Can we go?"

I muttered yes as we scrambled in a crouch back down the hill with our mujahedin escorts toward a waiting truck as the promised third mortar exploded somewhere behind us. Neither of us bothered to stop and see exactly where.

I was glad to be sitting as we drove away because my legs began to feel rubbery and numb as the giddy thrill of high fear faded and turned to shock. Still, I couldn't stop myself from laughing with the mujahedin, who mimicked my frightened expressions, shook my hand repeatedly and slugged me in the arm with big smiles of congratulations as though I had just undergone some sort of graduation.

"I'm not afraid of mortars, I'm afraid of you," Shah Lala told me, saying a dead reporter was more of a problem for him than a dead mujahedin. Naveed was not amused, and each time I caught his eye that evening things seemed less funny until my thrill of fear gave way to a deep sense of guilt.

I had taken a sick 17-year-old boy, who was skipping school to work as a translator because his family needed the money, onto a battlefield where we came about 3 feet from being badly hurt or killed. Had the second mortar gone just a bit deeper, the shell would have landed at our feet instead of above our heads, shredding us.

Moreover, I had given myself better odds than Naveed by wearing a borrowed flak jacket. Naveed wore only his sweater, a threadbare light blue school uniform and a prayer cap, hardly enough to keep off the cold mountain air. He had confided to me that his mother had urged him not to take up my offer of a trip to Tora Bora and to stay in school, which had only reopened in Jalalabad in recent weeks. But his father told him the family could really use the money and sent him with me anyway.

"I'm an asshole," I said later when telling the story to Aouidj Heidi, a chain-smoking French journalist whose world-weary airs and dark sense of humor have combined for welcome company.

"No, you're not," he said, assuring me that the translators, drivers and guides working for the international press corps reporting on the fighting at Tora Bora understood the risks. "We're not covering Disney World."

Talking after a dinner in Jalalabad, that seemed to make sense, at least in the abstract. But back at Tora Bora, whenever I was offered a return trip to the front lines, Aouidj Heidi's brand of existential ethics unsettled me, even with Naveed's assurances that he was unafraid to go into the hills again. I was certain I could overcome my own fears, deep as they were, about getting close to the fighting once more. But I was unsure whether my conscience could handle the sight of Naveed bloody and broken on some rocky hillside, wounded or worse because of me.

I thought about going without a translator, but then ruled it out since I didn't even know the local word for "duck." I could have fired Naveed and hired another translator. But it seemed perhaps an even greater twist of sick logic to choose one of the several English-speaking Afghans hanging around the media camps, deem his life less important than Naveed's and then offer him a job. And besides, Naveed needed the work.

So I spent most of my time on the so-called second line, where aging mujahedin tanks occasionally blasted at al-Qaida positions in the distance, along with the U.S. bombers, as Eastern Alliance troops rotated in and out of front-line positions.

As it turns out, that next day, Dec. 11, would prove to be a day of great success for the Alliance, but not an unqualified success.

Among the victims was Lavang Khan, who reeled when the first bullet shattered his skull, turning him to fall face forward down a rocky slope as a second shot tore into the small of his back and exited his stomach in a bloody spray, according to Zar Gul, a muj fighter of the Eastern Alliance who was wounded in the leg by the same al-Qaida machine gun fire that cut down Khan. "I tried to catch him," said Gul.

Gul and his fellow muj fighters told me the story as they sat in the flyblown Jalalabad hospital, later in the week, where the grimy windows rattled with relentless bomb explosions from U.S. airstrikes on Tora Bora.

Gul missed in his reach, and watched Khan tumble some 50 meters over the barren rocks. Elsewhere on the hill, Osama bin Laden's forces were beating off the assault with heavy guns and mortars. It was here that al-Qaida's intense fighting first triggered suspicions that they were guarding something of particular value here in the mountains, perhaps bin Laden himself.

His leg bleeding, Gul crawled past Khan's body in retreat to regroup with the rest of his mujahedin, who waited until nightfall settled over the rolling moonscape at the base of Tora Bora before going back for Khan and the bodies of two others who were killed, Gul Rahaman and Katib Khan.

Mamoon Khan found Khan's brutalized body. His legs were twisted, apparently snapped in the fall. His chest and neck appeared beaten in, as though someone had bludgeoned the corpse with a rock or rifle butt.

"He looked very beautiful," said Mamoon Khan, a youngish fighter with smooth skin, flinty eyes and a silky black beard. "He was just lying there."

But as Mamoon gathered up Khan's remains, he noticed a scrap of paper on the ground where the body had been. Uneducated, Mamoon Khan couldn't read the handwritten Pashto. So he took Lavang Khan and the paper back to his commander, who told him the note was a message from al-Qaida.

"It said, 'You are Muslims, we are Muslims; we don't have to fight each other,'" said Haji Zahir, the commander. "Send Americans for us," the note read.

Haji Zahir showed the note to the rest of his troops. After passing the paper around, one of the fighters pocketed it and took the missive back to the front lines in Tora Bora, where some 2,000 mujahedin from three different factions in eastern Afghanistan fought on. But when al-Qaida lost huge swaths of Tora Bora real estate around their caves after this, the first major mujahedin advance, there was promising news: The Eastern Alliance began to say the war was won. Al-Qaida fighters had radioed provincial military chief Cmdr. Haji Mohammed Zaman to say they wanted to surrender.

At the time, Zaman was thrilled. "This is the best day," he said, sitting on the floor of one of the abandoned village farmhouses that the mujahedin forces have been using as forward bases in the valley below Tora Bora. Rocking and holding hands with a fierce-looking bodyguard, Zaman laughed with a small group of his fighters, his front-line commander Sayed Mohammad Pahlawan and Jalalabad Mayor Ghafar, who goes by one name like many Afghans.

Describing Tuesday's heavy fighting, Zaman said he told his men ahead of the attack that "if you're going to die, die running," before ordering the charge on al-Qaida positions.

"They went," Zaman said, shrugging and turning up his palms in humored surprise.

Zaman seemed relaxed, his watery eyes sagging on his leathered face, as he broke the daily Ramadan fast that evening with a dinner of stale nan, greasy rice and stewed lamb.

"This is the end," said Zaman, who told me that the al-Qaida leaders were discussing their surrender terms among themselves that night in Tora Bora and would negotiate a formal cease-fire with him early Wednesday morning.

But, of course, it didn't happen quite like that.

On Wednesday morning, Zaman woke early and went to the front lines with Ghafar, Pahlawan and a group of other Eastern Alliance field commanders to meet area militia leader Hazrat Ali, also part of the Eastern Alliance force, and open radio surrender talks with al-Qaida. Zaman raised the foreign fighters on the radio and immediately asked them who was in command, thinking he may well hear the voice of bin Laden, who was rumored to be hiding in the caves. But the al-Qaida fighters didn't respond, leaving dead air on the radio that stirred suspicions Ali had voiced many times.

"Ali doesn't trust Arabs," said Samullah, a nephew of Ali who moves in the commander's inner circle and was present for the initial surrender talks. "We're afraid. Arabs just want to kill themselves. They might kill us with them."

As the radio silence lengthened, Ali turned to Zaman and urged him and the other commanders to break off talks and renew attacks immediately. Samullah and Pahlawan said Ali told Zaman that the al-Qaida fighters might be plotting something like the surrender in Konduz, Afghanistan, where Afghan Taliban and foreign fighters gave themselves up to Northern Alliance rebel forces, only to stage a suicide prison revolt.

Zaman and the others were convinced, and the ground war began again much to the liking of Ali, who, along with U.S. officials, had remained skeptical about the peace offer.

"Ali never wanted surrender talks," said Samullah. "Ali just wants to kill them."

The mountains were echoing with machine-gun fire and the chuff and whump of mortars again by 10 a.m. Wednesday. Overhead, U.S. planes guided by American Special Forces on the ground with the mujahedin stepped up airstrikes, which had continued Tuesday night unabated.

"There's no way except for fighting with the Arabs for us," said Pahlawan, a burly heavyweight of a commander who allowed me to visit the front lines the afternoon before Tuesday's assault.

Afterward, he laughed as I told him how we were shelled Monday afternoon as we peered at enemy positions from across a ravine dividing al-Qaida and the mujahedin. Calling me his "best friend," he said I could go back to the front lines anytime I wanted with him and his men. Unlimited access to the front was probably the most gracious gift a commander could offer to journalists, who have been kept away from most of the fighting at Tora Bora. I was deeply grateful, but not interested.

Noor Rahman, meanwhile, hitched rides easily to and from the front to shoot video he later sold to television networks -- and gather notes for me. In the evening, Noor would come down from Tora Bora and he and Naveed and I would join one of the Eastern Alliance commanders for dinner, hoping we would be offered a place to stay afterward. Usually we crashed with Pahlawan, who wore pork chop sideburns and a mustache instead of the seemingly mandatory beard grown by all the other fighters and commanders.

"You are my special friend," he would tell me again and again, smiling and nodding but never laughing as he offered me food, shelter, money, front-line tours and basically anything at his disposal I wanted or needed. He was this way with me after four conversations, the longest of them being an hour.

He confided that he wanted his third wife to be American, preferably 18, and that he hoped to live with her in the United States for a few years before bringing her into his family in Afghanistan.

He wanted to know if I was married, a question I was constantly asked by mujahedin fighters. I said I wasn't. He told me that, if I became a Muslim, he would find an Afghan wife for me and the two of us could live in his house in Jalalabad after nuptials. I tried to politely demure, saying I didn't feel ready for a commitment to marriage or religion.

As we talked quietly one evening, with the crunch of distant bombs in the walls, smoke from the wood-burning stove slowly filled the room where we sat until our eyes stung. An underling fighter brewing our tea had stacked the logs badly. Pahlawan rubbed his eyes with his massive, dust-caked hands, rose and stomped to the furnace, his heavy brow bunched in anger. In one motion, he hit the fighter across the back with an open hand, knocking him to the floor, and reached into the burning stack of wood to toss out the loose log that was causing the problem before sitting down next to me again.

"You are just my best friend," he said. "Can you get me a visa?"

By Mark Kukis

Mark Kukis is writing a book on John Walker Lindh to be published in the spring of 2003 (Brassey's). He is a former White House correspondent for UPI, and has reported from Afghanistan for UPI and Salon.

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