Commander Kalan Mir has a long beard dyed orange with henna and a jovial manner, and when he first said it, no one believed him. What colour was the horse, someone asked. How many men were there, another wanted to know.
The commander was adamant. "Osama was seen yesterday by our soldiers, along with his guards, riding on horseback," he said. "He was riding back to Melawa after visiting his men on the front lines."
The horse was a bay, he said; the bodyguards numbered four. It was just over that ridge over there, in the Melawa valley, where the al-Qa'ida fighters were still lurking, two miles from where we were standing.
I don't know whether Osama bin Laden is in the White Mountains, but everyone else seems convinced of it. Commander Mir believes it, and Haji Zaman Gamsharik, the defence chief. The Americans believe it too, judging from the almost constant drone of B-52s and fighter jets, and the thunderous bombs which pound the Tora Bora area.
Amid the chaotic surrender of Kandahar yesterday the Taliban's spiritual leader, Mullah Omar, went on the run. American forces fired on Taliban troops to stop them fleeing with their weapons, while here in the White Mountains the hunt for the elusive Mr bin Laden intensified.
Foreign special forces – probably American, but perhaps British – passed us on their way to the front in two speeding pick-ups. A tall, blond man in the passenger seat covered his face as they passed.
We were at a tank position where the rough road running south from Jalalabad starts to climb into the White Mountains. Suddenly, a convoy of pick-up trucks pulled dustily up – the entourage of the senior commander, Haji Zaman. Commander Zaman, wearing his usual expression of pained dignity, was here to visit the front, and his men were going up with him. "See the smoke? To the left, there – that's where the Arabs are," said one of his lieutenants. "I want to see where exactly it is," said the commander. "And then we can make a plan."
So here was an opportunity to go to the very front of the front – pick-ups were revving up and mujahedin were climbing into the back. We clambered aboard, and squeezed in. A crushed and uncomfortable ride followed, made surreal by heavy weaponry. A gunman's knees were wedged into my behind, a Kalashnikov jutted into my armpit, and I found myself clutching a rocket-propelled grenade.
After 10 minutes we were beneath a hill, upon which the commander peered through his binoculars. "Don't stand together," one of the mujahedin shouted. "Spread out in twos or threes. The Arabs are over there, and they have mortars."
The B-52s had been replaced by jets, roaring overhead at invisible heights.
A young man named Murad Shah passed on that Afghan women, wives of the al-Qa'ida Arabs, had been seen at the front line fighting alongside their husbands. And then there was the story about the 11 mujahedin who had been captured the day before by the Arabs. They released them with nothing worse than a sermon. "We do not want to fight you," they told them. "Our enemies are the Americans and British and when they come we will fight."
Below the crest of the ridge, we stopped. No more than 500 metres away as the crow flies, the battle of Tora Bora was in progress. Actually, battle is a very grand word for this kind of fighting, which has more in common with an explosive game of hide-and-seek than a formal clash between two armies. But down there, undeniably, machine-guns could be heard chattering between the resounding bombs.
But more interesting perhaps was the radio traffic from Kandahar to the al-Qa'ida fighters intercepted by the mujahedin. There was a set of messages, for someone whom the Arabs referred to as "sheikh". "Sheikh? Sheikh? How is sheikh?" came the question. "Sheikh is OK," came the reply.
"These are the al-Qa'ida," said the man who told me about the intercept. "They are Arabs, and there is only one man who they refer to as the sheikh." Osama bin Laden, who might just be out there, riding over the ridges a few miles away on his bay steed.Reuse content