More than a week of fighting in and around the Tora Bora mountain complex in eastern Afghanistan has left al-Qaida fighters with little territory and few avenues for escape.
Despite early Eastern Alliance advances, both tribal leaders and U.S. Officials have said the al-Qaida forces are putting up a stiff resistance. The tenacity of the mostly Arab militants has made some believe that senior al-Qaida leaders, perhaps including Osama bin Laden, may be in the area.
Gen. Tommy Franks, commander of the U.S. Forces in Afghanistan, said somewhere between 300 and 1,000 al-Qaida fighters are still in the area.
“Al-Qaida is contained in this region,” Franks said. When asked about al-Qaida casualties, Franks replied, “A lot of people have lost their lives in these valleys.”
An unnamed U.S. official told the Associated Press that al-Qaida was fighting “like there’s something there worth fighting for.” Opposition fighters, meanwhile, have reported spotting bin Laden in the area.
In Washington, White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer said U.S. forces do not know bin Laden’s precise location but they “strongly believe” he is still in Afghanistan.
The president today reiterated his assurances that the U.S. would find the Saudi exile suspected of masterminding the Sept. 11 attacks.
“I don’t care, dead or alive — either way. It doesn’t matter to me,” President Bush said during a meeting with Thailand’s prime minister. “I don’t know whether we’re going to get him tomorrow or a month from now or a year from now. I don’t really know. But we’re going to get him.”
U.S. Forces in Afghanistan are focused on ensuring that the foreign fighters do not melt into the mountainous surroundings.
“This is a pitched fight,” Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said yesterday. “The focus right now is in the Tora Bora area. There are a couple of main valleys there that we’re trying to keep people from escaping.”
With two steep mountain ridges along the east and west side of the area, efforts are focusing on the northern and southern entrances.
At the southern entrance is the border with Pakistan. There, Pakistan’s military has posted thousands of troops to stop al-Qaida soldiers from crossing the border but authorities say the rugged and snowy terrain makes that difficult.
Along the northern edge of the region, Eastern Alliance and American special forces troops are pushing forward despite the al-Qaida resistance.
In a battle today, it was reported that two Americans were said to be slightly injured by in a gunbattle. According to the Associated Press, twelve members of the U.S. special forces and dozens of tribal Eastern Alliance fighters were trying to destroy an al-Qaida defensive position when they came under machine-gun fire. Reportedly the two U.S. soldiers, who were grazed by the gunfire, were able to walk down to base camps to receive treatment.
U.S. officials said they did not know of the injuries but did not deny the incident.
“My reporting says we have not had any soldiers inured today, but I do not discount those reports,” Franks said at a press conference.
As the fighting intensified in Tora Bora, U.S. Marines to the south took command of the battle-damaged Kandahar airport, a scene of intense fighting before the final collapse of the Taliban.
The Marines are working to clear the runway of unexploded ordnance and repair sections damaged in an effort to get the installation up and running. The airport is reportedly to become a major staging area for humanitarian aid that will be desperately needed as the bitter Afghan winter sets in.
Secretary Rumsfeld Headed for Central Asia
Back in the U.S., the Pentagon confirmed that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld is leaving today for another overseas trip aimed at bolstering support among allies for the war on terrorism.
In addition to attending a NATO conference in Belgium, Rumsfeld is set to meet with authorities in Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia.
“He is going to meet with senior officials in those countries to discuss the war on terrorism,” Pentagon spokeswoman Victoria Clarke said. “It’s important to discuss with the leaders in the region and continue to reaffirm what it is we are trying to accomplish.”
Although the main thrust of his meetings will focus on the continuing military operation in Afghanistan, officials said he may also discuss the possibility of any next phase or new battlefront in the overall effort to rid the world of terrorist networks.