Fire on the Mountain

Tales of Life and Death in Tora Bora

That day I also saw my first bombing of Tora Bora. I was down near the lower guard house when I heard the sound of two jets approaching the valley, and next thing I knew I was ducking into one of the nearby caves along with everyone else in sight. We stayed inside for what seemed like 15 minutes, listening to the bombs explode one after another. When silence ensued and we reemerged I saw my cousin Mirweis walking toward me with an enormous smile on his face and a 10-pound piece of warm shrapnel cradled in his arms.

When there were no bombs to duck, fighting to be done in the nearby hills and mountains, or ammunition boxes to be unloaded from the back of mules arriving from Pakistan, life in Tora Bora took on a peaceful, almost summer-camp-like air. As off-duty fighters we spent many idle hours picking mulberries from the few trees dotting the surrounding mountains, chatting with nomads who passed through the valley, improvising volleyball games without a net, and visiting the antiaircraft gunners on mountain tops, joining them for tea in their foxholes.

We slept in large, drab tents issued by the United Nations and sometimes in low-ceilinged mud huts built against the side of the mountain or out on the prayer grounds next to the kitchen. Few if any slept in caves in the summer. The nights were cool, and with temperatures dropping precipitously and sharp winds blowing across the valley, we'd wrap ourselves in a woolen blanket called a patooand huddle around fires. With more men than gear, sleeping bags in Tora Bora came to be valued above rifles. If you ever got your hands on one, you'd go out of your way to hide it from others. My own favorite hiding place was the top of a tree about 100 yards up the slope from the medical clinic.

Winters were harsh, and the number of men in Tora Bora dwindled to a few dozen by December. Yet some of the most intense fighting around Tora Bora took place in the winter of 1986, when the Soviets attempted to take over the valley and drive the mujahideen toward the Pakistani border. They nearly succeeded, landing commandos and shoving back the resistance troops, only to find it difficult to cling to the valley. Within a week or two they had retreated and the mujahideen were back in the camp. A year later, empty cans of tuna fish littered the foxholes dug by Soviet troops.

As a well-known base camp, Tora Bora was a favorite target of the Soviet's regular bombing runs in eastern Afghanistan. But by the time I arrived at Tora Bora, the Soviets had lost their dominance in the skies, thanks to the arrival of the shoulder-fired Stinger missile in late 1986. The Stinger's range of 6000 vertical feet forced Soviet pilots to fly too high, and their accuracy diminished accordingly. During one particularly heavy week in the summer of 1988, Soviet bombs fell 100 to 200 yards from their targets. Their closest hit was an antiaircraft gun, and even then, the gunner's injuries were slight and his position left largely unscathed. Struck in the leg by shrapnel, he was brought down to the medical tent where Dr. Hamid worked on his wound.


It was also in Tora Bora that I came to know several young Arab volunteer fighters. They came in small numbers, mostly young Saudis, but also young men from Egypt, Yemen, Tunisia, Algeria, and the rest of the Arab world. There were also a few Pakistanis in their midst but we tended to lump them in with the others, calling them all Arabs. They struck us as being out of place in war-torn Afghanistan. They spoke none of the Afghan languages and had little combat experience. Wearing expensive-looking hiking shoes and, sometimes, checkered Arabic scarves draped over military-style vests, they appeared as tourists in the midst of traditionally garbed Afghan fighters. But their mission was clear enough: martyrdom.

The first stop on the way to the paradise they sought was Peshawar, Pakistan, the ancient border town that was home to several hundred thousand Afghan refugees as well as Western and Middle Eastern spies, combat junkies, and aid workers. As the headquarters of the resistance groups, Peshawar became the launching pad for the Afghan holy war. Through the Pakistani military and its powerful intelligence wing, the Inter-Services Intelligence, the United States largely underwrote the war effort, funneling more than half a billion dollars a year in military aid to the mujahideen. Saudi Arabia, as the richest Muslim nation, was the war's second largest financier. Along with several other Arab governments, the Saudi royal family spent billions of dollars building hospitals for the war-wounded in Peshawar and surrounding refugee camps, setting up relief organizations, and giving direct military assistance to the resistance groups.

At the same time, the Saudi government spearheaded an aggressive campaign to enlist volunteer fighters for the Afghan war. Preachers in Saudi mosques were told to exhort young men to join the jihad, and Saudi charities arranged middlemen for their entry into Afghanistan. The Saudi airline even offered discount tickets to Pakistan. Across the rest of the Middle East, similar campaigns got under way, though in most cases without official sanction.

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