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It's no secret that American special-operations forces have been in Afghanistan, but late last week they quietly made their way to Tora Bora, to the very front of the front lines. The dozen U.S. soldiers used a translator to coordinate with the head of the Afghan troops. To the Afghan fighters who were at their side, the Americans made it clear they were on a search-and-destroy mission. "We and the Americans had the same goal," said Khawri, an Afghan who was shoulder-to-shoulder with U.S. troops. "To kill all the al-Qaeda people."
The war in Afghanistan began nine weeks ago on a battlefield the size of Texas, and if all goes according to plan, it will end in a high, narrow valley smaller than the city of Austin. After weeks of playing Where's Osama?, military officials believe they have overheard bin Laden on handheld radio in the White Mountains, giving orders to his dwindling al-Qaeda forces, now estimated at just 300 to 1,000 men. If bin Laden is in Tora Bora, he and his soldiers are trapped in a box: snow-covered peaks loom on two sides, Afghan and American soldiers await on a third, and Pakistani border patrols stand guard on the fourth.
The cornered fighters have little room to maneuver. With no enemy anti-aircraft fire, American spy planes make lazy circles in the sky, daring al-Qaeda fighters to step out of their caves and become glowing infrared targets. Few have done so. Bin Laden has resorted to giving orders on shortwave radio, U.S. authorities suggest, because there's no one else left to do so.
But inevitability almost slipped away last week. The three Afghan warlords in control of alliance forces began the week with a successful assault on the Milawa Valley, the lone entrance to Tora Bora from the north. Al-Qaeda soldiers fled quickly, though they did manage to kill a few alliance troops. Having taken the territory, the warlords committed a major tactical error: they withdrew from the valley. When alliance forces returned the next day, they were greeted by three al-Qaeda fighters armed with machine guns who opened fire from 200 meters. No alliance soldiers were killed, but the morning was spent fighting a battle for territory that had already been won.
The follies had only just begun. As al-Qaeda fighters scampered up the mountains in search of safe haven, one of the warlords, Haji Zaman, agreed to a cease-fire without bothering to consult the other two Afghan commanders or the U.S. Zaman claims the Arab-speaking fighters reached him via wireless and offered to surrender on the condition that they be turned over to the United Nations. "They said they had to get in contact with each other and would surrender group by group," Zaman says. He then announced the cease-fire, halted his troops' advance and gave the opposition until 8 a.m. to give themselves up.
Zaman's fellow Afghan commanders were outraged, while U.S. officials appeared shocked. The Americans did not object to an al-Qaeda surrender, but any surrender had to be unconditional. As for the cease-fire, Air Force General Richard Myers, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, simply ignored it. "Just for the record," said Myers, "our military mission remains to destroy the al-Qaeda and the Taliban networks. So our operation from the air and the ground will continue until our mission is accomplished."
The U.S. ignored the cease-fire and bombed relentlessly. Sure enough, the next day, the surrendering al-Qaeda troops had vanished. Zaman's aides insist that they were probably "confused" when the U.S. broke the cease-fire and scampered back into their holes. But other Afghan leaders thought Zaman had been duped. "It was a trick," said Haji Zahir, one of the warlords commanding Afghan troops in Tora Bora. "They were buying time."
The arrival of Western troops at the front lines had the added advantage of giving the Afghan fighters new resolve. During previous weeks, the Afghans withdrew from their positions during the day in time to break their Ramadan fasts at dusk. With the end and the Americans in sight, they held their positions.
From the start of the war, the U.S. has relied heavily on Afghan ground forces rather than deploy a sizable contingent of American troops. But the cease-fire screw-up was a reminder that the Afghans might be useful proxies for some jobs but were perhaps not quite professional enough to finish this one. On Sunday Zaman managed to get back into the U.S.'s good graces and back into the race for the $25 million bounty on bin Laden's head as he ferried Western commandos to the front. By then, U.S. warplanes were pounding al-Qaeda positions with hundreds of bombs and missiles, and more than 100 U.S. and British special-ops soldiers had moved in, signaling to the Afghans and al-Qaeda that the time for mistakes was over.