Hamlet without the prince at Tora Bora

The endgame
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The Independent Online

After three hours of waiting on the margins of the Battle of Tora Bora, it was refreshing to have some hard facts and Murad Khan, mujahedin commander, was adamant. "No al-Qa'ida have surrendered today," he declared as he leaned out of his Toyota pick-up en route from the front line yesterday morning. "The Arabs are willing to surrender, but the Chechens refuse."

Then a bit later another pick-up trundled up, bearing another commander, named Said Mohammed Pahlawan. "Fifty Chechen fighters surrendered at 11 o'clock," he reported with equal confidence. "The surrender is continuing, and we believe that all the rest will surrender soon." Four hours later, as the sun set over the White Mountains, it was entirely uncertain who, if either of them, was right.

For the past week, Tora Bora has been the biggest show in Afghanistan and, on the face of it, the story has been vividly simple. On one side, at the bottom of the White Mountains, are the plucky Afghan mujahedin, supported by US bombers, and British and American special forces. On the other side, in the mountain caves and on the ridges, are the malevolent forces of al-Qa'ida and their overlord, Osama bin Laden himself.

As the former have slowly advanced up the mountain, the latter have become increasingly desperate and beleaguered. More than 100 journalists have made the daily journey to the front to record the final confrontation with the world's most wanted man. On television screens, and from the briefing rooms of the Pentagon, the battle has a heroic clarity.

If only it were that simple on the ground.

In the past week, journalists have been allowed as close as 500 yards from the spot where mujahedin and al-Qa'ida were firing machine guns at one another. From the higher rear positions, the scene is spread out like an oil painting, with the explosions of the American bombs, the mujahedin tanks and the al-Qa'ida mortars clearly visible. But even from this privileged vantage point, it has been impossible to establish the simplest facts.

How many al-Qa'ida fighters are there still in Tora Bora? One hundred and twenty – as Commander Pahlawan said on Friday? Or between 300 and 1,000 – as the overall American commander, General Tommy Franks, said that night? Are the al-Qa'ida men completely surrounded, or are they escaping into Pakistan? And is it the Chechen members of al-Qa'ida who want to surrender, or the Chechens who want to fight to the death?

A few things are clear enough. From the beginning, when the intensive aerial bombardment began, this has been a war dominated by the Americans. The mujahedin have lost some 30 men, with a larger number wounded, but their enemy has been cowed not by ground assault, but by bombs, 180 of which were dropped on Friday night alone.

Despite the mujehadin's insistence that this is their battle, American and British special forces are active on the ground, attacking al-Qa'ida emplacements and using laser equipment to guide in airstrikes close up. The Americans want an outright surrender; the mujahedin, as a few minutes of eavesdropping on their walkie-talkie conversations reveal, are doing all they can to persuade the enemy to surrender.

The al-Qa'ida have played along with this quite successfully – on Tuesday, US bombing halted after a surrender was agreed the following morning – the hour came and went without event. Changes in the pattern of US bombing suggest that, having been cornered in a narrow area, the al-Qa'ida have dispersed into smaller groups, perhaps with the aim of escaping to Pakistan. But captives have been taken – 50, according to the Pentagon, who were quickly whisked away to the southern US base near Kandahar. The biggest mystery surrounds the man in whose name all this mayhem is talking place: Osama bin Laden himself.

Several reported sightings have had him recently in the White Mountains; others have him escaping into Pakistan. The American interrogators in Kandahar must have put the question to those 50 prisoners by now. But perhaps it is in everyone's interests to encourage speculation that Tora Bora contains the ultimate prize.

For the mujahedin, it brings unprecedented attention and military support. For the anti-terror coalition it provides a temporary answer to the otherwise embarrassing question: where on earth is he? Perhaps, he will turn up this morning; probably, no one really knows.

"They are playing for time, and playing games rather than fighting," said Khan Mohammed, another mujahedin commander. He was talking about al-Qa'ida, but the same could go for everyone in Tora Bora – mujahedin, Americans and the enemy, whoever they actually turn out to be.