As Taliban and Arab control over Afghanistan shrinks, the United States is focusing its war efforts on two final holdouts.
In the southwest, lies Kandahar, the desert-walled city where Taliban leader Mullah Muhammad Omar started his long march to power more than six years ago and where he will likely make his last stand. In the southeast, is Tora Bora, the mountainous village where a tunnel complex built by Islamic guerrillas against the Soviets is thought to be occupied by hundreds of Arab militants, including Osama bin Laden.
Physically, each of these locations will present its own peculiar challenges for the Afghan forces aligned with the Northern Alliance, and for the US and British military forces that are providing them crucial logistical and air support. But with Taliban units defecting in ever-greater numbers, the endgame of the Afghan war is close at hand.
"It's a very different kind of scenario than a lot of us experts were predicting a month ago," says Rifaat Hussein, director of the Defense and Strategic Studies department at Quaid-e-Azam University in Islamabad. "The Taliban did not get a chance to disperse their forces throughout the country, and now America has cut off all supply routes and all sources of financial support. So, the Taliban have two choices: surrender to the rebellious commanders, or fight to the last man and commit collective suicide."
America has had a very different experience in this war than the Soviet Union and other superpowers that took on Afghan-istan's fierce tribes. The reason appears to be two-fold: American air power has done much of the work, allowing Afghan militias to strike hard against weakened Taliban defenses.
The deflation of Taliban control has been remarkable, from 90 percent of the country to about 10 percent. But experts say the final 10 percent could be the bloodiest, since the hard core of 10,000 or more Taliban believers are now defending their homes and families against what they regard as the "Supreme Evil." And those who know the foreign militants who fight alongside the Taliban - including Arabs, Chechens, and Pakistanis - say they have nowhere else to go, except what they consider paradise.
"I would not rule out large scale rebellion, even if Mullah Omar has said he will fight to the last man," says Dr. Hussein, noting that many Taliban soldiers and commanders have families in Kandahar. "My biggest fear is that if there is no surrender or compromise, the Americans will get the inclination to carpet bomb the Taliban, and you could not tell the military targets from the civilian targets. Will the Americans be willing to decimate the entire civilian population in order to get what they want: the Taliban?"
At present, the bulk of US military operations are focusing on Kandahar, a desert city that still bears the name of Sikander, or Alexander the Great. The pancake-flat terrain of Kandahar gives the US and its Afghan allies a distinct advantage, since there are few of the mountainous nooks for Taliban units to hide in that were present in and around Kabul, for instance.
US forces also enjoy one of the most important advantages in any war: supplies. With US Marines securing a key airstrip 60 miles south of Kandahar, US and anti-Taliban forces could sustain a war for months or years, while the Taliban are likely to run out of food, ammunition, and parts in a matter of weeks.
In Islamabad, Taliban spokesman Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef says that Mullah Omar has told his followers it is better to die with dignity than to live with humiliation. "Mullah Omar has advised and instructed everyone to fight to the death and not to bow down in front of brutality and blasphemy," says Mr. Zaeef, former Taliban ambassador to Pakistan. Experts say that Mullah Omar is likely to be in Kandahar itself, since he would not be able to persuade his supporters to fight to the death if he himself were not at risk.
The looming battle against Arab forces in Tora Bora, however, could last much longer than the Taliban itself. The reason is terrain.
Tora Bora, which means "black dust" in Pashtu, is a small lumbermill village tucked away in a narrow valley of the Spinghar, or White Mountain, range of southeastern Afghanistan. Just 35 miles south of Jalalabad, it is thought to be almost entirely occupied by Arab militants and other members of the Al Qaeda terrorist network set up by Mr. bin Laden. Afghan villagers from the area say they have seen bin Laden within the past 10 days, but others say he is on the move, possibly toward Kandahar.
Anti-Taliban commanders have said Tora Bora "is almost impossible to attack" from the ground, since just a single unit of 30 heavily armed soldiers can hold off thousands of troops from peaks that guard the narrow entrance to the Tora Bora Valley. Even if ground troops do make it to the valley's caves, they'll find well-fortified hideouts, built by anti-Soviet guerrillas during the 1980s at the base of Shreekhil mountain, and improved in the 1990s by bin Laden.
A week of heavy US bombing on Tora Bora has killed 100 to 200 civilians, local residents say, but left the tunnel complex largely untouched. More sophisticated weapons, such as the fiery fuel-air bomb, are difficult to use in this narrow valley, since heavy crosswinds make it hard to direct the bomb to the mouth of the caves, where it can do the most damage.
A local Afghan who has been inside the cave complex describes it being almost like an exclusive hotel. "That base is made like a cave, some 350 meters long into the mountain," he says on condition of anonymity. "They made an electrical system ... and the water that drives the electricity is coming from the peaks of the mountains."
"The entrance is wide enough to drive a car through," he says, noting that it is surrounded by trees and "very hard to see from the sky." "After 15 meters, you come to a door made of wood. After the door, the way is made into a hall ... with doors on the left and the right. Some rooms are big, some are small, but the walls are cemented."
The Arabs receive supplies from local villagers, by donkey and camel, but villagers are forced to take the longer 10 hour trek to the base for security reasons and not the closer three-hour walk used by the Arabs themselves. "Osama warned the villagers, if they come to the cave, people will die and no one will be responsible for their deaths," says the Afghan.