Blunders that let bin Laden
SQUATTING in the dark cave with a glass of green tea
in hand, Osama bin Laden must have felt awkward. It was late
November, the 11th day of Ramadan.
In a cavern high in the mountain complex, bin Laden
delivered a diatribe on "holy war" to his elite al-Qa'eda fighters,
telling them that unity and belief in Allah would lead to victory
over the Americans.
Even as he spoke, he was planning to abandon them.
Part of the audience that day were three of his most loyal Yemeni
One of them was Abu Baker, a square-faced man with a
rough-hewn beard. He recalled his leader's words.
"He said, `hold your positions firm and be ready for
martyrdom'," Baker later told his Afghan captors. "He said, `I'll be
visiting you again, very soon'."
Between three and four days later, according to
lengthy and detailed accounts gathered by The Telegraph in eastern
Afghanistan, the world's most wanted man left through pine forests
in the direction of Pakistan.
If all went as planned - and several al-Qa'eda
prisoners said it must have since "The Sheikh" later made contact
with the Tora Bora enclave - bin Laden had escaped from beneath the
world's most powerful military machine.
The ground for his departure had been laid before he
even went to Tora Bora.
In early November, at a gathering in Jalalabad, bin
Laden entered a room with 15 of his elite Arab commandos as a crowd
of Pakistani and Afghan tribesmen rose to their feet, threw flowers
and shouted: "Zindabad Osama! (Long Live Osama!)"
Malik Habib Gul, an Afghan tribal leader, sat in the
second row in the basement of the Taliban's intelligence
headquarters that afternoon.
He said: "Osama told us that the Americans had a plan
to invade Afghanistan, but that we would teach them a lesson - the
same one we taught the Russians."
Like the other tribal elders in attendance, the chief
received a white envelope full of Pakistani rupees, the thickness of
which was proportional to the number of extended families that he
oversaw in the Gor Giori Valley, hard up against the Pakistani
The cash was a down-payment to local leaders against
the day bin Laden and his followers needed to leave Tora Bora. Work
had already started on a dirt road leading from the cave network
Was the mountain base ever meant to provide the site
for a last stand for bin Laden and his close associates?
According to Afghan military commanders, some of whom
were already on Western payrolls when bin Laden was leaving, the
al-Qa'eda base held between 1,500 and 1,600 of the best Arab and
Chechen fighters in the al-Qa'eda network.
Haji Zaman Ghamsharik, one of the warlords who
attacked Tora Bora, said on Nov 18 - 10 days before bin Laden's
departure - that the fight would be a tough one.
"They told us through our envoys, that, `we will
fight until we are martyred'," he said.
But in retrospect, and with the benefit of dozens of
accounts from the participants, the battle for Tora Bora looks more
like a grand charade, a deliberate ploy to cover bin Laden's quiet
US generals made it clear by the end of November that
they believed senior al-Qa'eda operatives were inside Tora Bora.
A convoy of several hundred Arab fighters, including
bin Laden and his close associates, entered it from Jalalabad on the
night of Nov 12, and the US bombing around the base intensified
three days later.
The US strategy bore little logic for those suffering
the brunt of the attacks.
"When we round up a pack of stray sheep, we send in
shepherds from four sides, not just one," said Malik Osman Khan, a
one-eyed tribal chief whose 16-year-old son Wahid Ullah was one of
more than 100 Afghan civilians killed in the intense US bombing.
"At first, we thought that the US military was trying
to frighten the Arabs out, since they were only bombing on one
Haji Zahir, one of the three Afghan commanders whose
ill-prepared fighters led the charge up the southern slopes of Tora
Bora, agreed that the US bombing worked against his efforts on the
ground. "They started the bombing before they surrounded the
When the ground attack came, co-ordination between
the disparate elements was woeful. Commander Zahir said he only
learned that the offensive against Tora Bora was due to begin by
watching a CNN broadcast in early December.
Three and a half hours later he had 700 fighters
assembled, but none of them had winter clothing.
On the front lines, the drama of a real battle was
undeniable. There were dust clouds bursting beneath the snow-capped
peaks, with tanks on the move, and reporters diving for cover in
remote pine forests.
Bin Laden had left some days previously, and even as
the US military's proxy war got under way, the rush of his fighters
out of Tora Bora, which had been a trickle and then a stream, now
became a mad dash for freedom.
With their leader elsewhere, al-Qa'eda's top
commandos had lost their will to fight.
As panic overtook them, Afghan villagers on the
outskirts of Tora Bora were waiting in the wings to reap the
They collected £50 to £500 per person for taking the
injured, the elderly, and women and children into Pakistan's tribal
Said Malik Habib Gori, who had listened to bin Laden
speak in Jalalabad weeks earlier, said: "This was the golden
opportunity our village had been waiting for.
"The only problem for the Arabs was the first five to
10 kilometres from Tora Bora to our village. The bombing was very
heavy. But after you arrived in our village, there were no problems.
You could ride a mule or drive a car into Pakistan."
The eastern Afghanistan intelligence chief for the
country's new government, Pir Baksh Bardiwal, was astounded that the
Pentagon planners of the battle for Tora Bora had failed to even
consider the most obvious exit routes.
He said: "The border with Pakistan was the key, but
no one paid any attention to it. And there were plenty of landing
areas for helicopters had the Americans acted decisively. Al-Qa'eda
escaped right out from under their feet."
Ten days after the final offensive began, Afghan
warlords started the final push into Tora Bora as two dozen US
Special Forces soldiers, their faces wrapped in black and white
bandanas, watched from behind boulders on mountainsides.
Bin Laden had not been seen for nearly three weeks,
but the Pentagon had not surrendered the remote possibility that he
might still be within their grasp. Days earlier, Pentagon officials
were still insisting that he was trapped.
The source of their information turned out to be
Commander Hazret Ali, an illiterate warlord given to gross
exaggeration and regular contradiction in his daily press
In the event, the allies' final prize was a
disappointment. There were only 21 bedraggled al-Qa'eda fighters for
"No one told us to surround Tora Bora," complained
the nephew of the slain anti-Taliban Afghan leader Abdul Haq. "The
only ones left inside for us were the stupid, the foolish and the