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Inside the Tora Bora Caves

6 minute read
Matthew Forney

Crazy led the charge on the caves. The six-foot-tall mujahidin fighter who chose his own nickname is famed in Jalalabad for killing five Arab fighters who fled town a little too slowly when the Taliban fell. Just before taking his usual place leading the charge on Monday, Crazy found a white coat left by Al Qaeda fighters who had held a forward ridge the day before. “This is Osama bin Laden’s coat!” he yelled as he pulled in on, twisted a white head scarf around his head, and called his commander, Haji Zahir, one more time on the wireless. “I told him, “if you return unsuccessful, I’ll kill you,'” says Zahir. “It was sort of a joke, to push him further.”

It worked. The mujahidin shoved far enough into the craggy Tora Bora landscape on Monday and Tuesday to drive the last Al Qaeda fighters in Afghanistan so deep into the mountains that they’re offering to surrender. Small-arms fire crackled through Tuesday morning, but by afternoon the caves were secure, both sides had declared a cease-fire and the attackers were combing the area that once seemed unassailable for war booty. One of three top commanders, Haji Zaman, spoke with an Arab leader by wireless. “He said don’t fight, we want to surrender,” says Zaman. He ordered them to give themselves up by 8 AM Wednesday or face a renewed assault.

Despite the stunning victory in the field, the ultimate objective remained elusive. Osama bin Laden is still on the loose, although he is running out of Afghan aeyries in which to hide. The two-day attack and relentless bombing destroyed what was probably the last of his Al Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan, located just above the caves. The area is a picture of devastation. Strewn across the terraced slopes that climb a tight valley are torn strips of Arabic training manuals, some shreds of clothing, a set of parallel exercise bars and a shooting target printed by the National Rifle Association. Trees blown from the earth lie with their roots twisted into clumps like charred driftwood. Bomb craters 50 feet across and 20 feet deep are filled with rubble and cross beams. “I think yesterday he was around there,” says commander Zaman. “I don’t know if bin Laden is dead or alive,” he added, saying he’s waiting to see who, if anybody, turns themselves in on Wednesday morning.

For the first time, the infamous man-made caves of Tora Bora were thrown open. These weren’t the five-star accommodations with internal hydroelectric power plants and brick-lined walls, areas to drive armored tanks and children’s tricycles, and tunnels like capillaries that have captured the world’s imagination. Such commodious quarters might exist higher in the White Mountains, but these were simply rough bunkers embedded deep into the mountain. They were remarkable nonetheless.

I entered my first cave by walking through a narrow 20-foot passage chiseled into a 60-degree mountain slope. The effect was of walking through a deep cavern open to the sky. I walked down the passage, stepping over two rows of sandbags that blocked my way, and came to a three-foot opening. I ducked into the mouth and dared go no further. Not even the mujahidin would follow, and several were making “boom” noises and gesturing about flying body parts. Everybody expected booby traps or mines.

After my eyes adjusted I saw a chamber of about eight square feet and high enough for a tall man to stand in. The floor was dirt and rubble, but there were signs of habitation. It contained two empty white boxes decorated with palm trees and the words, “Sherjah Dates.” Scattered on the floor were a few green metal boxes of ammunition with Russian writing on them, and a canister about the size of an unexploded cluster bomb but the wrong color — red instead of yellow. Another cave next to it was about the same size and filled with ammunition, mostly bullets for Kalashnikovs and rocket-propelled grenades. Another nearby was much bigger and also filled with ammunition. Its cavern sloped up and back and seemed to lead to a passage, but nobody ventured in.

The caves faced a narrow valley that twisted its way through mountain ridges that seem to overlap as they rise toward the White Mountains. As Tuesday afternoon waned and it was clear that the Al Qaeda fighters had accepted the cease-fire, the area took the appearance of an archeological dig. Across one ridge 20 mujahidin fighters scratched at the ground with sticks looking for fragments of U.S. bombs, which they loaded into a huge cooking pot and carried to a pickup truck. One fighter handed me a rubber jug with a strap. “Al Qaeda,” he said with a nod. Arabs drink water too. Another fighter with pale green eyes carried a backpack that he had taken from a cave. It contained a stick of Mum Cool Blue roll-on deodorant. He wouldn’t let anyone touch it, but he would let them sniff.

The victory they were celebrating came with relative ease — one mujahidin fighter died and seven Al Qaeda fighters, according to commanders. Gul Karim led a group of about 30 fighters, including Crazy, in the Monday assault on the caves and a cluster of mud-earth houses nearby. The first thing he did was raise the enemy on a walkie-talkie. “He said they don’t want to fight us, that we all are Muslims. They said leave us the Americans and we will fight them.” It had no effect. “Our troops had orders to attack,” he says. His soldiers, most of whom had spent the past five years living in Pakistani refugee camps and had never fought before, first occupied the ridges above the caves and swept down the hills. The defenders withdrew quickly. One fighter with a yellow flower in his hat said his friend had killed two as they fled up the mountain.

By Tuesday morning nearly all the Arabs had followed to higher ground, where they fired mortars and machine guns at the advancing mujahidin. Three fighters on a strategic ridge held off the advance for much of the morning before a volley of small-arms fire and rocket-propelled grenades blew them apart. Two were later dragged to a command post and dumped on the ground for mujahidin fighters to gawk at. One was so mangled that his torso faced the sky and his legs faced the ground.

If they choose not to surrender by the Wednesday deadline, the Al Qaeda remnants will have to fight or flee. They still control the highest ground and it’s not known what kind of fortifications they maintain there. “We can’t say they are completely surrounded; they have many ways to escape,” says a commander named Atiqullah. “They could cross into Pakistan” by traversing the snowy passes along the border a several miles away, “but that way is very difficult.”

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