The battle might never have happened if not for a gruesome stroke of luck. On Jan. 27, U.S. troops and their Afghan allies were conducting random checks outside the city of Spin Boldak, a smuggler's haven near the Pakistani border, when a motorcyclist and his passenger roared past a checkpoint. The Americans and Afghans gave chase down a potholed road stretching across a broad mesa dotted with camels. During the pursuit, the turbaned man on the back of the motorcycle reached under his shawl for a grenade but fumbled it, blowing off his own legs. His comrade, Abdul Ghani, surrendered and later confessed a crucial bit of intelligence: he belonged to a 60-strong rebel legion holed up in the Adhi Ghar mountains not far away.
To the U.S., this is a painful reminder that the last war isn't over, even as the country prepares to do battle with Iraq. Indeed, the past few days have highlighted just how far the U.S. remains from bringing order to Afghanistan. On Jan. 31, 18 people died a few kilometers outside Kandahar when a bus hit a land mine apparently planted by antigovernment extremists. The previous day, police in Kabul arrested three al-Qaeda suspects who allegedly planned a series of car bombings against international peacekeeping forces. Adding to the sense of gloom, a U.S. Army MH–60 Black Hawk helicopter crashed last week—apparently accidentally—during a nighttime training mission. All four crew members were killed.
Now faced with the additional threat of a rebel force hiding out in the caves of southern Afghanistan, the U.S. launched Operation Mongoose. Their target: the Adhi Ghar range of mountains, a favorite base of the mujahedin fighting the Soviets in the 1980s. Honeycombed with caves, these granite ridges rear up out of the desert and are covered in a jumble of boulders that offer perfect cover for snipers. In recent weeks, this hideout had become the base for a new enemy commander whom the U.S. is now confronting for the first time: Hafiz Abdul Rahim, a rebel chieftain and former Taliban secret-police chief who had advanced through the ranks after allegedly massacring dozens of Hazara Shi‘ites in the town of Kalat.
After the Taliban's defeat in December 2001, Rahim drifted back home to Spin Boldak with no more than five men. But lately, Rahim has grown more dangerous—and apparently much better financed. With cash to burn, allegedly from wealthy patrons of terror in Pakistan, he recruited a band of gunmen from nearby villages—sometimes by force—for a new jihad against the Americans. Rahim's gang planted two explosives in Spin Boldak last month, killing four civilians and injuring scores more. His force swelled to more than 60 fighters, and they raced around Spin Boldak on new motorcycles brought from Pakistan. Rahim keeps dangerous company: he is loyal to Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a ruthless ex-Afghan war veteran who is loosely linked with Taliban and al-Qaeda renegades. "These al-Qaeda and Hekmatyar people are getting money and weapons from across the border in Pakistan," says Azaddin Agha, the pro-U.S. commander of the Afghan military in Spin Boldak. He waved a notice, supposedly issued by Rahim, which vowed to sweep "America off the floor of Afghanistan."
With the captured rebel Ghani leading the way, U.S. special forces and their Afghan allies converged on Rahim's mountain hideout on Jan. 27. Surprise was on the Americans' side as dozens of Afghan soldiers and U.S. special forces launched the attack. "Their leader Rahim only had time to grab his turban and run," chuckled one pro-U.S. commander, Abdul Raziq Achakzai. An initial firefight with the rebels lasted just 10 minutes. Then, a swarm of green helicopters dropped out of the clouds and disgorged 250 Marines. They took cover on the rocky slopes, trying to seal off their adversaries' escape.
For the next 36 hours, the rebels were subjected to a suffocating air bombardment. According to U.S. military spokesman Colonel Roger King, American planes dropped 19 "cave busters," 2,000-pound bombs that blast deep into the ground. This was followed by a rain of 500-pounders and rocket and cannon fire from AC–130 gunships and Apache helicopters. "It looked like (the rebels) had lost their minds," says Raziq. "They were running in every direction." By Raziq's count, 22 rebels were killed and another 13 were captured. The U.S. military reported no casualties.
During the Tora Bora battle in December 2001, the U.S. relied mainly on Afghan forces to mop up after the air bombardment. But the surrogate soldiers, due to bribery and tribal ties, let Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaeda fighters slip away. American commanders didn't want to make the same mistake again. So, at Adhi Ghar, U.S. troops crept up the mountain, blasting rocket-propelled grenades into caves in pursuit of 40 rebels thought to have survived the first attack. It is not known whether Rahim was among them. The mop-up lasted through the weekend, and even with a full contingent of nearly 300 U.S. troops encircling the mountains, some of the rebels are thought to have gotten away. "They may have moved to other caves to escape us, or they may have tried to sneak off the mountain," says King, the American military spokesman. "Either way, we will continue to hunt them."
As Operation Mongoose wore on, it became apparent that Adhi Ghar was intended as a large-scale, long-term rebel base. Soldiers blew up six arms caches hidden in the caves and found vast stores of food and other supplies. The rebels had pack mules and their own flock of sheep. "They had mutton," says Raziq. "They were eating a lot better than we were." Strategically, the base was perfectly located for attacks against American troops. It lies within striking range of several special-forces camps and a large U.S. air base in Kandahar. As an added advantage, it was just 40 kilometers from the Pakistani border, close enough for a quick getaway—and to receive orders from two key Taliban commanders, Mullah Bradar and Mullah Abdul Razzak, who Afghan intelligence sources say are hiding in the Pakistani cities of Chaman and Quetta.
Before they were ejected from their mountain stronghold, Rahim and his men had apparently received a new terrorist directive: to sow as much fear as possible by setting off bombs around Afghanistan's cities. For now, that plan may have been foiled. But the message of the past week is disturbingly clear: Afghanistan is still a deadly battleground, and America's Taliban and al-Qaeda enemies are ready to fight.