The slate at the jagged edges of the cave, on the main road that marks the start of the now-famous Shah-e Kot Mountains, feathers in shards that can be easily plucked away.
It is difficult to fathom that some of the most-wanted terrorists on earth lurked inside caves of such seemingly brittle stone. But perhaps like the strength of the Al Qaeda and Taliban the caves are less breakable than they appear. Deeper into the mountainside, the rock gets harder. And this cave, like so many others, had a secret exit.
To Afghans who would like to plug the fugitives' endless escape routes, and Western analysts who hoped that US-led coalition forces would have had more success hunting down such a technologically inferior enemy, cave redoubts like this reveal much about the evolving strategy of Al Qaeda and the Taliban. They also suggest that the allied forces may be skimming the surface of what the guerrilla movement has in store.
This week, as US military officials announced a successful completion of Operation Anaconda, the only thing left inside this vacated cave were tire tracks in the mud. Malik Jan, an Afghan army commander, led the Monitor into the cave, where he shook his head, then bent down to a spring-fed puddle to drink and wash his face.
For the mujahideen who fought invading Soviet soldiers in the 1980s, he explained, the tunnel was an old stomping ground. This time around, they just made it bigger and better digging it to twice its original size so pickup trucks could drive inside.
Al Qaeda, too, is thinking bigger and better than anyone expected. And they are reportedly regrouping with additional funds in the region. But both Afghan and international military analysts say that the caves the focus of US firepower in Tora Bora last December and here in Shah-e Kot this month may be decoys that Al Qaeda is laying out for coalition forces to target, while the planning for guerrilla warfare here and terrorism abroad is done in other quarters.
"You're giving the enemy a target so that he attacks that. And your enemy protects you, because he's busy fighting you, and you're not there," explains Paul Beaver, an independent London-based military analyst. "The Al Qaeda and Taliban are actually much better equipped than we expected. They're talking across the Web so they can't be traced. They're not the simple fighters we thought they were."
No one said winning this war would be easy. But the toppling of the Taliban last October may have given an inappropriately optimistic view of the US military's ability to quickly squelch its assailants.
Now, pro-government Afghan forces cite several reasons why the US-run campaign against Al Qaeda and the Taliban has not been effective: American military intelligence is weak, often comes from sources who work for both sides, and is sometimes too slow to be effective.
"The biggest problem has been the lack of coordination between the US special forces and the warlords," says Gen. Abdul Qadir Mohammed, chief of National Security and Defense Affairs. "[The US] bombed first and then surrounded the area of Shah-e Kot.
"Moreover, some of the Afghan forces with whom the Americans are working are sharing information with both sides," adds the general, a large man who, after 40 years in the military, wears a gray business suit while his olive wool uniform hangs on a wooden coat stand behind his desk. "In this phase of the war, the Americans have to win over local commanders by giving them money."
In fact, the US military has been investing time, funds, and expertise in training Afghan forces, but Afghan officials say it is not enough. Many outside experts agree. Moreover, rivalries among competing forces make it difficult. "The problem is that when the Americans give money to one commander, the other commander will get angry and give information to Al Qaeda," Mohammed says. To break that pattern, the interim government needs to create one national military that crosses ethnic and geographical divides.
US officials in Kabul hope Congress will pass a bill this spring that will provide additional military aid to Afghanistan. But, warns another official in Afghanistan's interim government, the Pashtuns the country's largest ethnic group are feeling slighted by the US military's reliance on the Northern Alliance, made up mostly of Tajiks and some Uzbeks.
"In Shah-e Kot, the Americans called in the Northern Alliance to go in ahead of them, and Panjshiris cannot operate there," says the official, referring to Tajiks, who come from the Panjshir region northeast of Kabul, whose language and landscape are different from the provinces south of Kabul, where the recent fighting has taken place.
Others, however, point out that even if the geographical nooks and crannies have not changed since Afghanistan's war with the Soviets, the political landscape has. In those days, the mujahideen had almost complete backing of local people. Now, loyalties are far more mixed, with key military factions supporting the US-led forces, not to mention a government in Kabul that wants and needs the West to stay engaged in both the war and the reconstruction effort.
"The battles we're having in Afghanistan are very different than the Soviets, when everyone there was against them," says Stanley Bedlington, a former CIA counterterrorism official.
If the good news is that many Afghans are allied with the US, the bad news is that Al Qaeda could gradually glean more local support: The longer the US stays, the more likely it is to be seen as another occupier. Four Afghan Islamic factions are, according to several Afghan military sources, trying to unite to launch attacks on the Afghan government and US forces in the spring. In the countryside, Islamists have been spreading the word that "communists" are trying to take over the nation.
"They cannot get to the people in the name of 'let's fight America,' because they know that the Americans saved them from the Taliban, so instead they are saying 'let's fight communism,' " says Malik Jan. "Later on, they say it's the Americans."
An added and equally troubling danger is the possibility of help coming from abroad. "There are reports that there are recruits coming in from outside to fight in Afghanistan," Mr. Bedlington says. "They have lots of support in the Islamic world, and you could have lots of people inside Afghanistan joining that effort. It seems to be moving into a proper guerrilla war."