Fighters race to win $25m bounty

The hunt for Bin Laden
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The Independent Online

What would you buy if the US government presented you with $25m? It's an unlikely question on a battlefield, and for a few minutes Aspendyar didn't know how to answer.

He was sitting on the side of a hill, one of a group of mujahedin militia men at the rear of the front line at Tora Bora. A few miles away the al-Qa'ida fighters were firing mortars over the mujahedin positions.

In the White Mountains were hundreds, perhaps thousands, of foreign al-Qa'ida members, clustered in deep mountain caves and scattered through the forest. And somewhere among them, according to consistent but unconfirmed rumours, is the $25m (£18m) prize: Osama bin Laden himself. Eventually, Mr Aspendyar nods and rolls up his trouser legs to reveal that he was wearing only one sock. "The first thing I would buy," he says, "is a new pair of socks."

The battle for Tora Bora is a complicated struggle – a guerrilla conflict, fought between militia armies in a small but gruellingly mountainous area in which the strategic goal is control of a group of mountain caves. But, although few will talk openly about it, it is also a race for the world's most wanted by Islamic bounty hunters.

Over the past three weeks, Mr bin Laden's presence in the White Mountains has been transformed from a vague rumour into the working assumption of the anti-al-Qa'ida forces. On Thursday, Kawal Mir, a senior commander of the mujahedin, reported that his men had seen Mr bin Laden riding on a horse close to the front line. Last month the US vice-president, Dick Cheney, said that he believed Mr bin Laden was in Tora Bora, and the following day American planes began bombing raids on the area which continued, night and day, ever since.

The Special Forces troops who travel to and from the Tora Bora battlefield also suggest that this is regarded by the coalition as a crucial battle of the war against al-Qa'ida. And then there are the pamphlets which have been dropped from the American planes on Jalalabad and the villages south, bearing the photograph of Osama bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawaheri.

"Twenty-five million dollar reward," reads the text, "for any one who provides precise information about their whereabouts." But what does such a vast reward mean in Afghanistan, one of the poorest and most deprived countries in the world? Conversations with mujahedin like Mr Aspendyar suggest that for most Afghans the sum is so high as to be almost meaningless.

Mere discussion of the reward is regarded as rather tasteless by many of the mujahedin. "We Afghans are proud people," says Commander Habib Gul, "and we never concern ourselves with money. We are fighting for our freedom." As a point of comparison, the salary of middle-ranking school teacher in Jalalabad is 1,900 rupees or £21 – and no teachers have been paid for six months. The bin Laden bounty could sustain a staff of 500 Afghan teachers for nearly 200 years.

Few of the mujahedin have been paid either, and when questioned about the uses of $25m, most of them are stumped. When pressed, Aspendyar says that he would send his children to school, and build a new house. His commanding officer, Commander Mir, would buy a modest hatchback Corolla. "The rest of it," he says, "I would spend on the redevelopment of my country."

For all the unity which they are displaying at Tora Bora, the bin Laden bounty hunters are still a divided group. Commander Zaman's main rival is Hazrat Ali, a commander of the Northern Alliance. Last Thursday, Commander Ali was seen driving to the front in company with the Northern Alliance supreme commander General Fahim.

Strangely, the famous general covered his face with a blanket when approached by reporters: his incognito visit suggests that the two may be plotting against the other Jalalabad warlords. Osama bin Laden and the bounty remains elusive, but if he is ever found, there will certainly be people who have plenty of plans for how to spend $25m, and not on soldiers' socks.

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