Elusive bin Laden robs mujahedin of famous victory

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One question annoys the irritable defence chief of eastern Afghanistan more than any other. Zaman Gamsharik has been facing that question for the past month. Even yesterday, as he announced his victory over the forces of al-Qa'ida, all anyone wanted to know was: What about Osama bin Laden?

Yesterday, his temper fraying, Commander Zamanfinally had an unambiguous answer. "He is not there!" he cried in exasperation, pointing behind him towards Tora Bora.

"If he was there, it would be our duty to find him. But he's not there, so how could we catch him? He's not there, he's not there!" And just in case there should be any lingering doubt, Commander Zaman repeated himself in French. "Il n'existe pas la!"

Yesterday, the anti-Taliban troops were still sorting through the corpses on the slopes of the White Mountains and the prisoners from the caves, and high above the snow line a remnant of the al-Qa'ida fighters was at large. But even without a final reckoning of bodies and captives, it seems clear. Osama bin Laden was not in Tora Bora yesterday. He was not in Tora Bora the day before. And – despite the reported sightings by local villagers, the alleged radio intercepts by the CIA and the avowals of American officials – he may never have been there at all.

For the mujahedin of Commander Zaman and his fellow general, Hazrat Ali, the stand-off was a famous victory. After a fortnight of messy and inconclusive fighting, assisted by intense American bombing, the Afghans had broken the back of the al-Qa'ida fighters in the roughest and most treacherous of terrain.

The al-Qa'ida caves, which a week ago had seemed impregnable, had been overrun. Two hundred of the so-called Arabs, who include Pakistanis and Chechens as well as Muslims from the Middle East, had been killed. The rest had been driven into the snowy peaks, abandoning weapons, food, and any realistic chance of survival.

Commander Zaman said: "This is the last day of al-Qa'ida in Afghanistan." Commander Ali added: "This victory means that the foreigners have been driven from our country." How to explain to them that, for the rest of the world, the overwhelming sensation was one of anti-climax?

In retrospect, the idea that Mr bin Laden was in Tora Bora, a steep valley in the White Mountains, was always a wishful proposition. It was certainly true that he had strong links with eastern Afghanistan. He stayed for several months in the regional capital, Jalalabad, which contained numerous al-Qa'ida houses, training camps, and weapons laboratories.

One of his wives lived there with his children, until Mr bin Laden was seen escorting them away shortly before the American bombing began on 7 October. And on 14 November, when the Taliban peacefully withdrew from Jalalabad, hundreds of his al-Qa'ida followers deserted the city for Tora Bora.

Ever since then, the conviction grew that their leader had gone with them. Questioned repeatedly, mujahedin commanders did nothing to discourage the speculation. Last month, Commander Ali passed on a report that Mr bin Laden had been seen riding on horseback (the story cropped up at least three times, once featuring a white horse, and once a bay). The US Vice-President, Dick Cheney, told a television interviewer that he thought he was there. Commander Zaman said that he was 70 per cent sure of it one day, and 90 per cent sure the next.

But looking back over the reports, it is striking that no one ever committed himself to 100 per cent certainty. The pressure for bin Laden stories spawned some striking journalism, with reports in US and British newspapers of sightings. But no journalist found a first-hand witness who had seen Mr bin Laden with his own eyes.

For the mujahedin, who were pleading for US military and financial support, rumours that the world's most wanted man was on their doorstep were a stroke of luck. For the anti-al-Qa'ida alliance, they quelled embarrassing questions about where he was, and why he hadn't been caught.

After a while the accumulation of rumours, second and third-hand sightings, media reports and the absence of any firm denial gave the story a life of its own: it came to seem probable, not for any good reason, but because everyone else believed it to be true.

It may well be that at some point Mr bin Laden passed through the White Mountains, en route to Pakistan or to southern Afghanistan where his ally, the Taliban leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar, held out until last week.

But throughout the Tora Bora hysteria, no one posed the obvious question: why would Mr bin Laden allow himself to be cornered in a cold mountain cave when there was still so much of Afghanistan left to hide in? He isn't there. He probably wasn't there. But how we wished that he had been.