MARKHANAI, Afghanistan - Hungry, tired and hindered by snow, the 25 al-Qaida fighters were easy prey for the huge B-52 bombers, circling so high overhead that they couldn't be heard from the ground.
The bombers found their quarry in a narrow rocky valley five hours from where the climactic battle of America's Afghan war was winding down last December. Villagers found their corpses several weeks later along a mountain path strewn with AK-47 rifles, ammunition, sleeping bags and a laptop computer. They took the 25 bodies back to their village, buried them and erected a cluster of gravestones and green and white Muslim prayer flags. The flags still flutter on a knoll that overlooks the village of Markhanai and the river that runs through the bone-white boulders of the Sulemankhel valley.
The valley lies across the mountains from Tora Bora, where for two weeks last December the United States and its allies had their best opportunity to capture or kill Osama bin Laden and decapitate the terrorist organization that had attacked America on Sept. 11. But despite President Bush's vow to get bin Laden "dead or alive," the gravestones and flags in the Sulemankhel valley are about all there is to show for the effort.
Tora Bora was to be al-Qaida's last stand. But it wasn't. Hundreds of al-Qaida fighters escaped because U.S. commanders, anxious to avoid American casualties, failed to commit U.S. units to the fight and relied instead on air power and on Afghan warlords whose loyalty and enthusiasm were suspect from the start.
The Bush administration proclaimed Tora Bora an American victory - the United States and its allies drove the enemy from the battlefield. But if the U.S. goal was to destroy the terrorists who killed 3,000 people in the Sept. 11 attacks, America lost its best opportunity. Letting al-Qaida escape complicated the war on terrorism and allowed the terrorist leaders to boast that, with God's help, they had survived America's heaviest blows.
Much of al-Qaida's leadership and, U.S. intelligence officials estimate, 1,000 to 1,100 of the terrorist army's foot soldiers escaped through the mountains into Pakistan's lawless border areas, where they found refuge with sympathetic tribesmen. From there, the officials say, many of bin Laden's men sought refuge elsewhere in Pakistan or escaped to the Middle East, Southeast Asia, Africa and Europe.
Now, some of the terrorists who escaped from Tora Bora and others who fled Afghanistan earlier have regrouped and have begun carrying out new attacks, military and intelligence officials say. The officials say a revived al-Qaida was probably behind the Oct. 12 terrorist bombings that killed more than 180 people on the Indonesian island of Bali, a recent attack on a French oil tanker off the coast of Yemen and the attacks that killed a U.S. Marine in Kuwait.
Lieutenants remain fugitive
The man whom intelligence officials consider al-Qaida's operations chief, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, remains a fugitive. Bin Laden's second-in-command, Egyptian doctor Ayman al Zawahiri, who was with bin Laden in Tora Bora, recently reappeared in new audiotapes, issuing apocalyptic warnings similar to those that preceded other al-Qaida attacks. Bin Laden himself purportedly issued a statement Monday praising the tanker attack and the murder of the Marine and vowing new attacks on U.S. and Israeli targets.
"I don't know whether bin Laden is alive or dead," President Bush said Monday, answering questions from the press. "I do know al-Qaida is extremely dangerous. I do know that there are still some of his top lieutenants roaming around and that we're doing everything we can to bring them to justice. ...
"I also know that the enemy still wants to hit us," Bush said. "Therefore, it does look like a pattern of attacks that the enemy, albeit on the run, is trying to once again frighten and kill freedom-loving people. And we've just got to understand, we're in a long struggle," Bush said.
So the long struggle against al-Qaida continues as Bush's administration turns its attention to Iraq, where America once again is counting on U.S. air power and is training local allies - this time 10,000 Kurds and an unspecified number of Iraqi Shiite Muslims - to supply intelligence, translators and fighters.
The area called Tora Bora is about 30 miles south of the city of Jalalabad in eastern Afghanistan, which was a hub of al-Qaida and other terrorist activity. Islamic militants bound for Kashmir and Chechnya trained at al-Qaida camps nearby. Bin Laden himself lived for a while in Jalalabad and kept a house on the southern edge of town. The al-Qaida leader returned to the city shortly after the U.S. attack on Afghanistan began Oct. 7, 2001.
In late October, U.S. intelligence reports began noting that al-Qaida fighters, their families and members of al-Wafa, a humanitarian organization that intelligence officials say served as al-Qaida's logistics branch, were moving into and around Jalalabad. The reports said the local Taliban leaders, Mullah Kabir and Younis Khalis, a veteran of the U.S.-backed war against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, were asking local Afghans who lived in desirable compounds to move out so the fleeing Arabs could move in.
American intelligence analysts concluded that bin Laden and his retreating fighters were preparing to flee across the border. But the U.S. Central Command, which was running the war, made no move to block their escape.
"It was obvious from at least early November that this area was to be the base for an exodus into Pakistan," said one intelligence official, who spoke only on condition of anonymity. "All of this was known, and frankly we were amazed that nothing was done to prepare for it."
Bin Laden was last seen heading south out of Jalalabad toward Tora Bora in a convoy Nov. 15, the day his Taliban allies abandoned Jalalabad, according to Pakistani intelligence officers.
His convoy was one of several that left Jalalabad for Pakistan as U.S. warplanes pounded al-Qaida positions around the city and anti-Taliban Afghan forces began closing in, residents of the city said.
On the night the Taliban gave up Jalalabad, a convoy of 1,000 or more fighters passed through the village of Gherikil at the base of the foothills, according to local villagers.
Arrival after nightfall
The gunmen abandoned their vehicles and hiked up the Sulemankhel valley, one of two that lead south from the terrorist camp through the Spin Ghar (White Mountains) to Pakistan. Their route led through the village of Tora Bora, an hour and a half up the valley, where villagers say they passed through in groups of 40 to 50. They were armed with Kalashnikovs and other weapons and carried flashlights and sleeping bags. They didn't stop, even when they were offered tea and other refreshments.
It was well past nightfall when the al-Qaida column arrived at Markhanai, two more hours by foot up the valley from Tora Bora.
If bin Laden and other high-ranking al-Qaida leaders were in the group, the villagers in Markhanai aren't saying.
"There were a lot of guys. We didn't recognize them all," said Sultan Waziri, 35.
Waziri and others say they had little contact with the escaping al-Qaida and Taliban fighters. "They didn't ask us for food and water. They had their own supplies with them," Waziri said. "They were afraid of us. We were afraid of them."
About an hour north of Jalalabad, hundreds more Arabs and other foreigners passed through the village of Daghazy and nearby settlements on their way to Konar province, where al-Qaida had maintained other training camps, or to Pakistan.
Many stragglers traveled on foot. A local man, Hamidullah, 45, was walking along a road next to the Konar River when six men emerged from the tall grass along the riverbank. They had just swum across the shallow but swift and muddy river. They had no weapons, and they were dressed like Afghans.
"Their clothes were wet, and their faces were dirty. They were very tired," said Hamidullah, seated outside a mud compound with two tulips and "Well Come" painted on one wall. "They had no shoes, and they asked me to please help them."
Hamidullah, who like some other Afghans goes by one name, took the men home with him for the night and gave them tea and milk. They were all Arabs. They told Hamidullah they were afraid and that they needed his help to get to Pakistan. He took them there with a hired car and driver.
Local residents say many people in Daghazy and nearby villages took the fleeing Arabs into their homes and helped guide them to Pakistan.
"There were many cars and trucks full of al-Qaida and Taliban who passed through here," said Sourghul, 42, a Daghazy resident. "We knew who they were because they carried Kalashnikovs, machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades."
Sourghul said he guided four men to Pakistan after they approached him from the river shortly after the Americans began bombing the Jalalabad airport.
Holy war was no longer on the minds of the fleeing fighters. Survival was.
"They were pulling at my beard and pleading with me to take them to Pakistan," he said. "It is human nature that you should help someone in this condition."
"Noor Ghul," who refused to give his real name, said he worked as a cook for more than a year at the al-Qaida camp at Tora Bora. Now he lives in the village of Tandor, just across the border from Afghanistan in Pakistan's Kurram tribal agency.
He said bin Laden assembled his followers Nov. 25 in the village of Milawa, in the foothills below the terrorist camp. Like the Sulemankhel, the sparsely populated Milawa valley, little more than a dry riverbed full of rocks, gravel and sand, is a direct route from Tora Bora to the Pakistani border, which is eight or 10 hours away on foot, according to residents.
Bin Laden makes his departure
There were 2,500 to 3,000 al-Qaida fighters there, said Ghul, 35. A senior U.S. intelligence official said the real number may have been one-third of that, however.
Bin Laden, Ghul said, thanked his fighters for coming to Afghanistan to serve Islam, then urged them to leave the country.
"We are not in a position to compete with the enemy," Ghul recalls bin Laden saying. "He is equipped with the latest weapons, which we lack. So I suggest to all of you that you go back to your respective countries before the situation becomes more dangerous. If we survive, then we will meet again, or we will meet at doomsday."
Then, Ghul said, bin Laden recited some verses from the Quran. The terrorist leader seemed depressed, and he leaned on his cane. He asked his senior leaders to distribute money to the men so they could get home. He urged his men to be patient, and he wished them success. He then departed with his son and Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar's son, accompanied by tribal elders from the Sulemankhel valley.
The stage was set for the battle of Tora Bora.
ESCAPE FROM TORA BORA
ABOUT THIS SERIES
Knight Ridder Pentagon reporter Drew Brown and Detroit Free Press photographer David Gilkey recently returned to the Afghan battlefield at Tora Bora, where last December U.S. commanders thought they had cornered Osama bin Laden and more than 1,000 al Qaida fighters. They interviewed Afghan fighters, retraced the terrorists' escape routes to Pakistan and talked to Pakistani intelligence officers who were tracking bin Laden. This is the first of two stories that explains how and why the United States lost its best chance to decimate the terrorist group, which now appears to have regrouped and launched new attacks in Indonesia, Yemen and Kuwait.
From the start, American commanders had tried to limit the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan. Some military officers, however, thought the aversion to risk was crippling the effort to wipe out the terrorist group.