How bin Laden got away
A day-by-day account of how Osama bin Laden eluded the world's most powerfulmilitary machine.
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"We chose to fight using the Afghans who were fighting to regain their own country," Colonel Thomas says. "Our aims of eliminating Al Qaeda were similar."Skip to next paragraph
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Ali is a short, cocky fighter who won control over most of Jalalabad when the Taliban vacated on Nov. 13. He then became security chief for the Eastern Shura, the self-proclaimed government here. With only a fourth-grade education, he can sign documents, but he has trouble reading them. As an anti-Taliban fighter allied to former Northern Alliance commander Ahmed Shah Masood, who was assassinated just before Sept. 11, Ali and his band of hillbilly fighters fought against the Taliban in the north for six years. Local Pashtuns in Jalalabad complain that Ali's men went on a looting spree during their first days in town.
As a counterbalance to Ali, the US chose another powerful regional warlord, Ghamsharik, whom they had lured back from exile in Dijon, France, in late September. Known to many as a ruthless player in the regional smuggling business, Ghamsharik was given a rousing party on his return, including a 1,000-gun salute. He became the Jalalabad commander of the Eastern Shura. But he still didn't have the support of his own Afghan tribesmen (Khugani). Many of them, in fact, were proud to admit that they worked for Al Qaeda inside the Tora Bora base as well as in several nearby bases.
From the start, Ghamsharik was clearly uncomfortable with the power-sharing arrangement. Ali's men were Pashay - no relation to Ghamsharik's own Pashtun followers. He called his rival Ali "a peasant," and said he could not be trusted.
The rift between the two men would seriously hinder US efforts to capture Al Qaeda's leadership. Although backed by the United States, the Jalalabad warlords would have to determine by themselves - while sometimes arguing fiercely - how best to go after Tora Bora's defenders.
Moreover, in the early stages of the Eastern Shura discussions about Tora Bora, these leaders talked about "asking the Arabs to leave," not about attacking them outright. A key powerbroker, Maulvi Younus Khalis, a Jalalabad patriarch who supported bin Laden, had stacked the Shura with his own sympathizers. "The Americans can bomb all they want, they'll never catch Osama," he quipped to the Monitor on Nov. 25.
While ceding some power to the two competing warlords - Ali and Ghamsharik - Khalis, who had been temporarily handed the key to Jalalabad when the Taliban vacated, made sure that his personal military commander, Awol Gul, retained the heavy fighting equipment. Mr. Gul and another Khalis man, Mohammed Amin, traveled into Tora Bora on several occasions beginning Nov. 13, according to Ghamsharik.
The Afghan warlords estimated that Tora Bora held between 1,500 and 1,600 of the best Arab and Chechen fighters in bin Laden's terror network.
Ghamsharik said on Nov. 18 that the fight would be a tough one: "[Al Qaeda fighters] told us through our envoys that 'We will fight until we are martyred.' "
They also suspected that bin Laden himself would be directing the battle. After all, it was the place from which he had most successfully fought the Soviets in the 1980s.
And on Nov 29, Vice President Dick Cheney told ABC's "Primetime Live" that, according to the reports that were coming in, bin Laden was in Tora Bora."I think he was equipped to go to ground there," Mr. Cheney said. "He's got what he believes to be a fairly secure facility. He's got caves underground; it's an area he's familiar with."
Meanwhile, in the weeks following bin Laden's arrival at the Tora Bora caves, morale slipped under the constant air assault. One group of Yemeni fighters, squirreled away in a cave they had been assigned to by the Al Qaeda chief, had not seen bin Laden since entering on Nov. 13.
But they say bin Laden joined them on Nov. 26, the 11th day of Ramadan, a warm glass of green tea in his hand. Instead of inspiring the elite fighters, he was now reduced, they say, to repeating the same "holy war" diatribe.