TORA BORA, AFGHANISTAN — Western-backed Afghan warlords paraded 19 Al Qaeda prisoners in a dusty courtyard for the international press yesterday. British news organizations paid as much as $2,000 for exclusive access to them.
But there was no sign of the No. 1 US target: Osama bin Laden. Indeed, while local Afghan leaders declared a well-earned (and conveniently timed) "victory" Sunday on the first day of Eid - the three-day post-Ramadan Islamic feast - US bombers kept up their attacks in the snowy peaks of eastern Afghanistan.
The pause here underscores for the US the perils of relying on proxy fighters with different goals. Afghan troops are taking a break to enjoy the religious holiday, and savor and cash in on their battlefield gains. But their "break" occurs as Al Qaeda's top ranks may be escaping through the mountains into Pakistan.
The two-week battle for Tora Bora has so far produced an estimated 200 dead Al Qaeda and 31 prisoners of war. American and British Special Forces are still racing to and from the front lines determined as ever to root out remaining Al Qaeda holdouts and find new clues as to the whereabouts of the evasive bin Laden.
But the battle for Tora Bora has begun to look more like a tale of two entirely different battles.
One is a Western battle to end international terror; and the local warlords clearly want to do that too. But it also appears that these warlords are as interested in making as much money as possible out of the world's current interest in eastern Afghanistan.
The three main warlords tried to explain yesterday how they had beaten Al Qaeda - even as they refused reporters a promised tour of the caves of Tora Bora, which allegedly include bin Laden's personal quarters.
During the battle for Tora Bora, the Afghan warlords divided up the mountains in the area into three equal parts and "cleared" the enemy out of their respective territories.
While the world's press was going up one mountain valley to witness the battle, senior Arab operatives in Al Qaeda were being smuggled down another valley near the famed Khyber Pass on their way out to Pakistan. The "safe houses" that moved the human goods were being run by Afghans with strong connections to the Jalalabad government.
The goal of taking bin Laden "dead or alive" has never, apparently, been a top priority of the Afghan commanders, senior commander Haji Zahir said yesterday.
A statement from the son of the retired regional governor, Haji Qadeer, seems to bear that out. "Our mujahideen are up there, but they aren't fighting, they are just looking through caves," he said. "We fought this battle without shoes and food, but we still felt it was our mission to put an end to Al Qaeda. We succeeded. As for Osama, I can't say much more until I see him with my own eyes."
Commander Zahir and his fellow Afghan "freedom fighters" have already had a genuine victory of sorts. They have entertained the international press for two weeks during the battle by insisting at various stages that they had already won, but then backed down the next day.
With confusion in the air, it has been difficult for beleaguered reporters whose editors want them on the front line in case someone does finally nab the world's most wanted man.
"We are all hostages in a way to the Afghan warlords," says Harry Doornbas, a Dutch radio reporter. "The United States and Europe are paying them money to find Osama, and the way this thing is going, we won't ever get home for Christmas."
At the same time, Zahir and several other leading warlords in the Jalalabad area have displayed the kind of entrepreneurial spirit that has long made the region famous for smuggling opium and Sony television sets.
Journalists who arrive on the Afghan border without the proper permission from the governor are turned away and told to buy into the "package deal" in Peshawar. That package provides them food, lodging, and access to the front lines. Even after getting into Afghanistan, "customs" posts up and down the road to Jalalabad demand additional "entry fees."
The world has been living on tenterhooks, thanks to the Afghan fighters whose love for hype and a great battle includes giggling uncontrollably at incoming rocket fire.
With the inflated prices on the heads of Al Qaeda prisoners, some news organizations are preparing to pay an expected $10,000 for a tour of bin Laden's bedroom.
The Afghan tribal fighters' alleged "mopping up" of Al Qaeda forces has not yet extended into the farthest peaks where Zahir admits Arabs and Chechens are still holding out. "Because Al Qaeda have lost food, they have lost confidence," he said. "The major exodus of fighters was due, however, to the US bombing campaign."
Asked if the US was pressuring his forces to keep chasing Al Qaeda farther back into the White Mountains, the commander snapped: "We are not going to listen to anyone, or be pressured from the outside into doing anything we don't want to do."
Only minutes after the warlord spoke, a thundering roar of another American bombing raid rolled through the mountains. "It sounds to me like Washington is getting a little unhappy with the way things are going," said one British journalist.
"The US will not leave the region until our mission is complete," said President Bush's press secretary, Ari Fleischer, yesterday. The mission, he said, included bringing bin Laden and the top lieutenants of Al Qaeda, as well as the Taliban leaders "to justice."
Francine Kiefer contributed to this report from Washington.