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Homing In On The White Mountain

The hunt for Osama narrows down to this impregnable range as US marines set up base here and step up intelligence effort

Homing In On The White Mountain
Homing In On The White Mountain
When CH53 Super Stallion and CH46 Sea Knight choppers airlifted around a thousand marines from USS Peleliu and USS Bataan for their long journey from the Arabian Sea to Kandahar on November 25, few among them were perhaps aware that their operation had been advanced from the earlier schedule chalked out by the military planners. Diplomats in Pakistan say the marines weren't supposed to be deployed until the tribal warlords of the south had started to confront the Taliban as a unified force. But as time wore on and the Taliban dug in tenaciously in their spiritual headquarters of Kandahar, Washington decided it had to act.

It was on the night of November 25 that the marines, drafted from two Marine Expeditionary Forces of the United States, secured the Dolangi airfield located 100 km southwest of Kandahar. Its packed-dirt airstrip, measuring about a mile and quarter, was quickly taken over, allowing the choppers to bring in military equipment 90 minutes later. The marines took over the buildings in the complex, unhinging the doors with shotgun blasts to ensure that none had been booby-trapped.

Dubbing the base as Marine Corps Base, Afghanistan, and subsequently planting a pole with an American flag there, the marines concentrated on bringing in the generators and using the existing wiring in some of the buildings to provide light. Technicians had the satellite system operating in three days, consequently rendering possible communications over both classified and unclassified networks.

But Afghanistan observers say the setting up of a marine base at Dolangi can't be considered a major achievement. Located in Helmand province, the airstrip sits in the middle of the Reg Desert, an uninhabited area where the Taliban neither go nor possibly plan to. The airstrip and the building complex were constructed by Arabs who used to come down to Afghanistan on hunting expeditions.

Dolangi, however, has its advantages. For one, it is located close to the Pakistan border and marines can be evacuated easily in case of an emergency. And the fact that the Reg is barely populated insulates marines from surprise attacks or sabotage.

Diplomats in Pakistan say the US was keen to establish a forward base only after the Taliban had been removed from power in Kandahar. It had two options: one, getting the combined troops of Pashtoon tribal leaders Hamid Karzai and Gul Aga Sherzai to attack Kandahar and two, engineering a bloodless coup in the city.

In the week before US marines landed near Kandahar, Noorzai tribal chief Abdul Khaliq tried to force Mullah Omar out of power in a palace coup and replace him with tribal elder Haji Basher. Reports say Mullah Omar had agreed to the bloodless transfer of power but his own rank and file revolted against the contemplated change. Some believed—correctly, as it turned out—that the Americans had floated the scheme only to weaken the Taliban leadership.

With its plan of engineering a bloodless coup come unstuck and Karzai and Sherzai involved in squabbles, the US decided to take advantage of the fall of Takhta Pull village to establish its base 100 km southwest of Kandahar. But the marines are reportedly not engaged in ground combat. They have instead concentrated on distributing arms among the anti-Taliban tribals, greasing the palms of those in the Taliban who could revolt and blocking the Taliban and Arab fighters from slipping into the inaccessible Hindu Kush mountains or across Pakistan.The primary objective remains as it was a month back: hunt down Osama bin Laden, a task rendered easier now because the marines are better placed to collect intelligence.

It isn't as though the US Special Forces hadn't been scouring Afghanistan for bin Laden. Hitherto concentrating on the Marouf area south of Kandahar and the southeastern Uruzgan province between Kandahar and Kabul, the US hunters have been hobbled by lack of precise intelligence. Sources say that even the hi-tech sensors which scan for movements, heat, vibrations and other signals as also the GBU-28 bunker-buster bombs have been a disappointment, causing only superficial damage to targeted cave entrances.

Intelligence information coming from Kabul shows that the hunt for bin Laden has narrowed down to a network of caves near the village of Tora Bora, which nestles in the foothills of the Spinghar range or the White Mountains. With their snow-capped peaks, steep valleys and fortified caves (some with their own coal-fired heating systems), the range offers formidable natural protection to those taking shelter here. The closest city to Tora Bora village is Jalalabad, the capital of Nangarhar.

The locals say the White Mountains, which served as a base against invading Soviets, are nearly impregnable. An Afghan militia commander, Hazrat Ali, now with the Northern Alliance, was quoted last week as saying: "I lived up there as a mujahideen in the '80s and it's almost impossible to attack." Ali took over Jalalabad after the Taliban government fell two weeks ago and now serves as internal security chief for Nangarhar Province.

The US military is now focusing its bin Laden hunt on the villages and outlying areas 35 miles south of Jalalabad. In the past one week, the US has bombed the White Mountains repeatedly, forcing many to leave their villages. A depopulated area could help bin Laden as it precludes the existence of informers. Simultaneously though, it could cause problems of procuring regular food supplies.

Local traders coming down from the White Mountains have reported seeing Arabs there. "They are paying a lot of money for people to work for them," claimed Sohrab Qadri, intelligence chief for Nangarhar province, in a recent interview. He claims there are 1,000 to 2,000 Al Qaeda members there. "We have spies among the villagers who come to Jalalabad to buy food for the Arabs and tell us what they're up to."

Experts say if these reports are true and bin Laden is there in the mountains, he is protected by caves as enduring as the rock into which they are carved. It was at Tora Bora that bin Laden established a base on his return to Afghanistan in 1996; it was from here that he had fought the Soviets. The White Mountains had indeed proved to be a pain for the Russians. "Secreted between ridges, well fortified, seemingly impregnable, it was the perfect launching-place for raids by the mujahideen," says one Pakistani intelligence official.

Today, just as the Russians did a decade back, US jets have been bombing Tora Bora. There are some, however, who say bin Laden couldn't be hiding here as he knows it's the one place Americans would come looking for him. The Arabs sighted there could be red herrings intended to mislead US pursuers. With the marines now in Afghanistan and the chances for sifting intelligence on the Saudi fugitive vastly improved, it shouldn't be long before we'll know for sure.

Daniel Lak in Peshawar and Amir Mir in Lahore

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