Day one of battle for Tora Bora: Ambush, retreat and ignominy

War on terrorism
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The Independent Online

On a map, it is little more than a mile from the bottom of the White Mountains to the caves that the al-Qa'ida fighters use, but it took Jan Shah and his mujahedin three hours to climb the steep forest slope.

They expected some resistance, but there was none, and when they got to the caves, there was treasure beyond their expectations: 40 four-wheel drive pick-up trucks, with the keys still inside, abandoned by the al-Qa'ida Arabs three weeks ago after their retreat into the mountains.

More cautious or more disciplined troops would have followed their orders and stopped there, but Commander Shah's men pressed ahead.

It was the first day of fighting at Tora Bora. "The battle has started, and we will persevere until we have eliminated them completely," said Sohrab Qadri, a mujahedin commander loyal to Jalalabad's security minister, Hazrat Ali. "But the resistance is very tough, they are fighting hard, and our men have not been able to go very far."

"We were told just to secure a line," said Commander Shah, "and we met some villagers who warned us not to go on because the Arabs and Taliban were there. But when we got up there we were full of courage and so we went on." And that was when the ambush was sprung.

"We'd been there for five minutes when they suddenly jumped up and began firing," he said. "I could see their faces, and they were all the faces of Arabs, not of Afghans. They were firing machine-guns, and I was hit in the left leg."

The battle lasted for 10 minutes before the ambushers disappeared up the slope, and the mujahedin limped away. Last night, Commander Shah lay in Jalalabad hospital alongside one of his injured men.

"I was hurt and I was not sure about what was going on," he said. "But my men were carrying the dead bodies of our comrades upon their backs." It is impossible to know the full extent of the casualties.

Last night, usually talkative pro-Western commanders in Jalalabad, the regional capital, were mysteriously unavailable. But witnesses who left the battle front after the convoy of journalists in which I travelled spoke of awful scenes – pick-up trucks bearing dead soldiers, the injured being carried in convoy away from the front. The battle for Tora Bora is only one day old, but it is already fulfilling its promise to be one of the most difficult and dangerous of the war.

From the hill where I stood it looked deceptively simple. Beside us, intermittently deafening us with their shells, were three tanks of the anti-Taliban mujahedin alliance, with 10 more on the road below. Looming above them were the White Mountains, and the valley area known as Tora Bora where this battle is being fought.

In there, hidden from view by the first peak, are the men known as "the Arabs" – the Chechen, Pakistani and Saudi fighters of Osama bin Laden's al-Qa'ida network, along with a few remnants of the Taliban. No one really knows how many there are – some of the mujahedin say 700, other estimates go as high as 2,000. They have been holed up there for three weeks, since their Taliban allies pulled out of eastern Afghanistan to beat a strategic retreat to the south.

The Arabs could have pulled out too, to the stronghold of Kandahar, where the Taliban still hold out. Instead they chose to stay in the White Mountains, the scene of many battles in Afghanistan's 22-year war.

And with them, the mujahedin commanders say – until a few days ago, at least – is Osama bin Laden.

After the invasion of the Soviet Union in 1979, the mujahedin themselves hid out in the caves, enlarging them with dynamite and successfully defending the steep approaches to the valleys. Later came the al-Qa'ida and Mr bin Laden, who transformed them into an underground fortress, with doors, concrete walls and water-driven electricity generators. Now the mujahedin are fighting to take them, and they know better than anyone what a task that is going to be.

This is an ill-matched battle. Pitched one against another, there would be little to choose between the mujahedin and the Arabs. The former have tanks, while their enemies are firing nothing more powerful than Kalashnikov rifles, machine-guns and short-range mortars. But the Arabs have the tremendous advantage of the terrain, a narrow but steep mountain range covered with caves and forests into which they can retreat at will.

But gliding through the sky, scarcely audible at 15,000 feet, is the decisive factor in this battle: American B-52 bombers.

The mujahedin commanders on the front line carry only walkie-talkies and they have no way of communicating with the planes above. Yesterday, they simply watched as a single plane circled again and again. Every 15 minutes or so, a great muffled boom reverberated through the mountains, accompanied by an orange flash, then clouds of smoke rising from behind the hill. And then their 13 elderly T-56 tanks loaded and fired at the same spot.

But this is a battle that will be won on the ground, and there the mujahedin had a mixed day. One thousand of them have gathered here since Tuesday, along with their battered Russian tanks, and last night more were on the way. The Arabs have left their cave hideaways for the forest, and to the mujahedin soldiers moving towards them, they are a faceless enemy. "We can hear them talking to one another on their radios," said a soldier named Habibullah. "But they call one another by numbers instead of names. We heard them saying. 'Don't shoot at them now. Wait until they come up and then surround them, and take them out.' " And that, as Commander Shah and his over-enthusiastic men discovered, is exactly what happened.

But the Arabs' supply lines have been cut. The villagers who were bribed and bullied into delivering water and food are leaving the area, and the stores in their caves will give out eventually.

"I can't compare them with the Russians because there is no one left to help them now," said Halim Shah, the commander of the front line. "They are completely helpless. But they are terrorists."

When you ask how long the battle will last, the mujahedin refuse to answer. And when you press them, they say, rather hesitantly, "Soon".