| |
news.telegraph.co.uk
Save this page to your clipboard Email this page to a friend Print this page as text only
telegraph.co.uk
News home
Business news
Crossword Society
Feedback
Golden Jubilee
Law reports
Matt cartoon
Obituaries
Opinion
Weather
War on terrorism
About us
Contact us

 

Blunders that let bin Laden slip away
By Philip Smucker
(Filed: 23/02/2002)

SQUATTING in the dark cave with a glass of green tea in hand, Osama bin Laden must have felt awkward. It was late November, the 11th day of Ramadan.

In a cavern high in the mountain complex, bin Laden delivered a diatribe on "holy war" to his elite al-Qa'eda fighters, telling them that unity and belief in Allah would lead to victory over the Americans.

 
Click to enlarge

Even as he spoke, he was planning to abandon them. Part of the audience that day were three of his most loyal Yemeni fighters.

One of them was Abu Baker, a square-faced man with a rough-hewn beard. He recalled his leader's words.

"He said, `hold your positions firm and be ready for martyrdom'," Baker later told his Afghan captors. "He said, `I'll be visiting you again, very soon'."

Between three and four days later, according to lengthy and detailed accounts gathered by The Telegraph in eastern Afghanistan, the world's most wanted man left through pine forests in the direction of Pakistan.

If all went as planned - and several al-Qa'eda prisoners said it must have since "The Sheikh" later made contact with the Tora Bora enclave - bin Laden had escaped from beneath the world's most powerful military machine.

The ground for his departure had been laid before he even went to Tora Bora.

In early November, at a gathering in Jalalabad, bin Laden entered a room with 15 of his elite Arab commandos as a crowd of Pakistani and Afghan tribesmen rose to their feet, threw flowers and shouted: "Zindabad Osama! (Long Live Osama!)"

Malik Habib Gul, an Afghan tribal leader, sat in the second row in the basement of the Taliban's intelligence headquarters that afternoon.

He said: "Osama told us that the Americans had a plan to invade Afghanistan, but that we would teach them a lesson - the same one we taught the Russians."

Like the other tribal elders in attendance, the chief received a white envelope full of Pakistani rupees, the thickness of which was proportional to the number of extended families that he oversaw in the Gor Giori Valley, hard up against the Pakistani border.

The cash was a down-payment to local leaders against the day bin Laden and his followers needed to leave Tora Bora. Work had already started on a dirt road leading from the cave network towards Pakistan.

Was the mountain base ever meant to provide the site for a last stand for bin Laden and his close associates?

According to Afghan military commanders, some of whom were already on Western payrolls when bin Laden was leaving, the al-Qa'eda base held between 1,500 and 1,600 of the best Arab and Chechen fighters in the al-Qa'eda network.

Haji Zaman Ghamsharik, one of the warlords who attacked Tora Bora, said on Nov 18 - 10 days before bin Laden's departure - that the fight would be a tough one.

"They told us through our envoys, that, `we will fight until we are martyred'," he said.

But in retrospect, and with the benefit of dozens of accounts from the participants, the battle for Tora Bora looks more like a grand charade, a deliberate ploy to cover bin Laden's quiet escape.

US generals made it clear by the end of November that they believed senior al-Qa'eda operatives were inside Tora Bora.

A convoy of several hundred Arab fighters, including bin Laden and his close associates, entered it from Jalalabad on the night of Nov 12, and the US bombing around the base intensified three days later.

The US strategy bore little logic for those suffering the brunt of the attacks.

"When we round up a pack of stray sheep, we send in shepherds from four sides, not just one," said Malik Osman Khan, a one-eyed tribal chief whose 16-year-old son Wahid Ullah was one of more than 100 Afghan civilians killed in the intense US bombing.

"At first, we thought that the US military was trying to frighten the Arabs out, since they were only bombing on one side."

Haji Zahir, one of the three Afghan commanders whose ill-prepared fighters led the charge up the southern slopes of Tora Bora, agreed that the US bombing worked against his efforts on the ground. "They started the bombing before they surrounded the area."

When the ground attack came, co-ordination between the disparate elements was woeful. Commander Zahir said he only learned that the offensive against Tora Bora was due to begin by watching a CNN broadcast in early December.

Three and a half hours later he had 700 fighters assembled, but none of them had winter clothing.

On the front lines, the drama of a real battle was undeniable. There were dust clouds bursting beneath the snow-capped peaks, with tanks on the move, and reporters diving for cover in remote pine forests.

Bin Laden had left some days previously, and even as the US military's proxy war got under way, the rush of his fighters out of Tora Bora, which had been a trickle and then a stream, now became a mad dash for freedom.

With their leader elsewhere, al-Qa'eda's top commandos had lost their will to fight.

As panic overtook them, Afghan villagers on the outskirts of Tora Bora were waiting in the wings to reap the harvest.

They collected 50 to 500 per person for taking the injured, the elderly, and women and children into Pakistan's tribal areas.

Said Malik Habib Gori, who had listened to bin Laden speak in Jalalabad weeks earlier, said: "This was the golden opportunity our village had been waiting for.

"The only problem for the Arabs was the first five to 10 kilometres from Tora Bora to our village. The bombing was very heavy. But after you arrived in our village, there were no problems. You could ride a mule or drive a car into Pakistan."

The eastern Afghanistan intelligence chief for the country's new government, Pir Baksh Bardiwal, was astounded that the Pentagon planners of the battle for Tora Bora had failed to even consider the most obvious exit routes.

He said: "The border with Pakistan was the key, but no one paid any attention to it. And there were plenty of landing areas for helicopters had the Americans acted decisively. Al-Qa'eda escaped right out from under their feet."

Ten days after the final offensive began, Afghan warlords started the final push into Tora Bora as two dozen US Special Forces soldiers, their faces wrapped in black and white bandanas, watched from behind boulders on mountainsides.

Bin Laden had not been seen for nearly three weeks, but the Pentagon had not surrendered the remote possibility that he might still be within their grasp. Days earlier, Pentagon officials were still insisting that he was trapped.

The source of their information turned out to be Commander Hazret Ali, an illiterate warlord given to gross exaggeration and regular contradiction in his daily press briefings.

In the event, the allies' final prize was a disappointment. There were only 21 bedraggled al-Qa'eda fighters for the taking.

"No one told us to surround Tora Bora," complained the nephew of the slain anti-Taliban Afghan leader Abdul Haq. "The only ones left inside for us were the stupid, the foolish and the weak."

Related reports