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 Timesreporter 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.

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.

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.

For Osama bin Laden, this provided an opportunity to channel his religious fervor into a worthy cause. The son of a wealthy Saudi businessman, bin Laden set up shop in Peshawar in the early 1980s to support the Afghan jihad. He gave money to Afghan resistance leaders and charities working in refugee camps. More importantly, he recruited volunteer fighters, setting up hostels in Peshawar, putting the volunteers in touch with the various Afghan resistance groups and on occasion leading them to battle in Afghanistan. Although there was no shortage of manpower in Afghanistan, the CIA encouraged the effort because it wanted to see the Afghan conflict grow into an international cause célèbre.

Driven by a desire to gain martyrdom, thousands of young men heeded the call to arms, traveling to Peshawar, where they received their introduction to jihad, and then to military training camps set up along the Afghan-Pakistani border. From there they would enter Afghanistan with one of the resistance groups. By the end of the Soviet occupation in 1989, several thousand Arabs and other foreign Muslims are said to have fought in Afghanistan, with hundreds losing their lives.

In Tora Bora there were always a dozen or so Arabs, and the running commentary on their presence in Afghanistan was that they had bought their way into our ranks. They were poor fighters, but they had money, and money carried clout with our leaders in Pakistan. After spending some time with them in Tora Bora and elsewhere, two things struck me about them: their religious zeal and their deep albeit subtle hatred of America—a mix that would later give rise to the Islamic terrorism now haunting the West.

I remember hearing one of the Arabs talk about the various stages of martyrdom as we trekked one day across the White Mountains to Tora Bora. As someone who had spent more than a year at a Saudi-funded religious school in Pakistan, I understood some Arabic, enough to follow him. As if reading from a manual, he talked about how two angels carry the martyr to the gates of heaven as soon as the first drop of blood comes out of his body, how on the second drop, the martyr will enter the garden of heaven, and on the third he'll be greeted by heavenly girls. He gave quite a graphic description, and even as a deeply religious person, I couldn't help but find it a bit morally licentious.

Seeking heavenly pleasures was all well and good but it wasn't what we were doing in Afghanistan. We were fighting a holy war, it was true, and cried, "God Is Great!" before lobbing mortar shells at Soviet troops, but our first and foremost goal was to liberate our country. As for the young Arab who yearned for martyrdom, he might as well have gone to a different planet to fight the infidels and die in the way of God.

I don't know what happened to him, but many others did attain martyrdom, some in ways they had not foreseen. After the Soviets left, we launched a major offensive to take the city of Jalalabad, and during that battle, I heard more than once that small groups of Arabs were taken out at night to the desert by angry local Afghans. "You want to go to heaven?" they would be asked. "I'll show you the way." The shortcut to heaven was a bullet in the head.

Most of the young Arabs who fought in Afghanistan returned to normal lives. Some were unable to shed their jihad fervor and went on to incite Islamic insurgencies in their own countries. These fighters came to be know as Afghan Arabs. A small group of diehards stayed behind, finding shelter in the chaos that fell over Afghanistan and awaiting the return of a bin Laden to lead them to a holy war of a different sort, one that may take years to quash.

As for me, I left Afghanistan in the fall of 1989. I lost contact with the men I knew at Tora Bora. I could only assume the worst as Afghanistan descended into civil war. Some made it in the news, however. My cousin Mirweis, who went on to work as a stringer for the BBC, was murdered in 1994 on the orders of a warlord who didn't like his reporting. Commander Mahmoud was killed by a personal enemy hours after the Taliban swept in on Jalalabad in the fall of 1996. And at least one went on to become a commander for the Taliban. But Dr. Hamid apparently survived the mayhem that overtook Afghanistan, going on to do one last battle for his country.

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