Fire on the Mountain

Tales of Life and Death in Tora Bora

Recently a friend I had long given up for dead turned up alive and well and fighting on the front lines of Tora Bora, the now notorious mountain redoubt in eastern Afghanistan where Al Qaeda fighters mounted a last stand before vanishing into the tribal areas of Pakistan. The Times reporter who interviewed "Hamid" simply identified him as a local doctor who had helped build the mujahideen base camp in Tora Bora during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s. * The article offered no other details about Hamid, but the name was a giveaway: There was only one Dr. Hamid in Tora Bora when

I spent time there in the late 1980s as a member of the Afghan resistance. Abdul Hamid, medium built, hazel eyed, fast talking, was one of several "doctors" in our group, men with little more than a high school education and a few months of training as paramedics in Pakistan. (My cousin Jalil was one, too.) But Abdul Hamid was far more than a doctor. Besides having mastered the art of amputating limbs and stitching up guts as deftly as an emergency-room surgeon, he was also skilled at operating a mortar and had served as a close aide to Engineer Mahmoud, the legendary commander of Tora Bora.

I came to know Engineer Mahmoud and Dr. Hamid in the two years I spent with Hezbe Islami, one of the seven major Afghan resistance groups. By the late 1980s, Hezbe Islami had become one of the dominant groups in eastern Afghanistan, and Engineer Mahmoud, as the top military commander for Nangarhar Province, commanded several thousand fighters from his headquarters in Tora Bora.

Masood Farivar, veteran of Tora Bora
photo: Jay Muhlin
Masood Farivar, veteran of Tora Bora

Afghanistan has gone through dramatic changes since I moved to the U.S. in 1989. The mujahideen took Kabul in 1992; Engineer Mahmoud abandoned his base at Tora Bora and went on to became president of Jalalabad University; the Taliban swept to power in the mid 1990s; and Osama bin Laden, once a passionate supporter of the Afghan war, returned to the country in 1996 and took over Tora Bora, where he trained young men in the art of terror.

As the U.S. debates whether to send hundreds of marines and army troops to Tora Bora to scour the caves for Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda fighters, it finds itself dealing with the same people it once patronized to fight the Soviet army there. U.S. troops are again depending on Afghans, who began fighting among each other after the country dropped from our collective consciousness in the early 1990s.

Tora Bora, a worthless piece of property in times of peace, may soon be cleared of its latest wartime inhabitants. Ultimately, though, the sole way to ensure that the caves don't house future bin Ladens—years or even decades from now—is not to destroy the caves but to restore lasting stability to the nation. The U.S. would be setting itself a risky and futile mission if it were to undertake a full-scale destruction of Tora Bora, and in truth, Afghanistan is riddled with such warrens.

I can only imagine that for men like Dr. Hamid, the Afghans' recent recapture of the mountains was the long-awaited culmination of lingering hostility toward the presence of Islamic militants in Afghanistan. What appears for Dr. Hamid as the close of more than two decades of bloodshed now flashes across American screens as little more than a blip.


Just as Americans have mythologized the reclusive figure of Osama bin Laden, so too do they envision Tora Bora as a viper's nest of herculean proportions. Yet the Tora Bora I remember, while formidable, was much more primitive than the highly sophisticated, ventilated network of caves described in some press accounts. Nestled in a sparsely wooded valley, the main base camp had two main entrances, one at the southeast end of the valley floor that served as a gate to incoming traffic from Pakistan, the other to the north on a high slope that overlooked the valley on one side and a cluster of small hamlets on the other. There were nearly a dozen caves scattered throughout the valley, fortified and expanded and sometimes linked with tunnels. Two kitchens with wood stoves and samovars served meals three times a day. A narrow man-made cave served as a holding cell for prisoners. And two long, triangular-shaped caves were expanded to hold hundreds of weapons and boxes of ammunition and other supplies near the bottom of the valley, where we washed our guns and bathed in a small creek in the summer as the first glimpse of the afternoon sun flickered high above.

In the warmer months Tora Bora buzzed with hundreds of men, mostly young Afghan refugees returning from Pakistan as part-time fighters. I was one of these refugees when I arrived in Tora Bora in 1987 and was issued my first Chinese-made folding-stock AK-47. I remember picking up my rifle and walking down a steep trail to the creek to wash the grease off. I spent the rest of the day practicing dismantling it so that by evening I could take it apart and put it back together in under 10 minutes.

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