One of the many lessons you learn over and over in journalism is that there is no substitute for being there and walking the ground. After nearly three months of covering the war in Afghanistan from the Pentagon I finally got a chance to walk the ground, and the reality was very different than I expected.
I went into Tora Bora with U.S. special forces - the first time reporters have been allowed to accompany them in Afghanistan. They are in Tora Bora searching for caves used by Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaidah fighters, and they are finding the search for caves as frustrating as the search for bin Laden himself.
The special forces just aren't finding many caves, and they aren't finding any caves that resemble the multi-level underground complexes bin Laden was thought to have built in Tora Bora.
The biggest cave found so far is 60 feet long, ten feet high and ten feet wide. That cave had been attacked by a B-52, but it was undamaged except for a pile of debris at the entrance. In fact, all the caves I saw were largely untouched by the bombing.
The caves are built into the sides of the valleys. To fight, bin Laden's men had to leave the shelter of the caves and climb up to the ridge lines where they could command the high ground against the advancing anti-Taliban fighters.
On the ridges, they were exposed to the American air strikes and you could see the craters left by the bombs as they marched their way through the al-Qaida positions.
On one ridge hit by cluster bombs, all the trees had been cut off just above ground level. Despite all the destruction, there was no sign of bodies and no sign of fresh graves. One explanation is that the al-Qaida fighters had already abandoned their fighting positions by the time the bombers arrived overhead.
The special forces are popularly known as the green berets, but in Afghanistan they are not wearing berets or anything else that could be called a uniform. Most of them are dressed in blue jeans and baseball caps and have let their beards grow. Some of them are dressed in Afghan garb. They are not trying to fool anyone, just keep as low a profile as possible.
They have taken over an abandoned school house as their base of operations. In the room used as the command post, the walls were papered with reconnaissance photographs of suspected caves, usually a suspicious looking shadow on the side of a hill. Getting to the caves on the ground can take hours of hard traveling by four wheel drive, by mule and on foot, and the results are often disappointing. The team I was with climbed to 8,000 feet to check out one reported cave and found nothing.
The special forces operate side by side with local anti-Taliban fighters, ho know the terrain but are poorly led, trained and equipped. The U.S. has issued them hundreds of sets of winter jackets and boots but only a handful have trickled down to the troops. The rest are being hoarded by their commanders.
For one mission, a nighttime helicopter assault on a suspected cave located at 10,000 feet, about a third of the Afghan fighters showed up without boots, socks, sleeping bags or even weapons.
The special forces had to rummage through their own dirty laundry to find enough socks for the Afghans to wear. It was the first time any of them had ever been on a helicopter and the main concern was that the Afghans would open fire inside the helicopter.
The mission went off without a hitch, but there was one problem -- no cave.
By David Martin
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