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An escalating, high-altitude showdown

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Maulavi Saifur Rehman Mansoor, the Taliban's military commander and son of a former prominent mujahideen leader and governor of Paktia Province, is leading the large group of Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters in the mountainous terrain south of Gardez.

"Maulavi Mansoor's fighters brought dozens of Stinger missiles from the Zawar Khili Al Qaeda base in early January, before it was bombed by US planes," says Haji Sardar Khan, a resident of Shahi Kot. "Al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters stockpiled a lot of food and weapons a few days before the attack began."

Operation Anaconda is taking place in the Arma Valley in the Shahi Kot mountain chain, southwest of Gardez. It is roughly a 100-square-mile patch of 800- to 12,000-foot snow-covered peaks and a series of deep, narrow, tree-covered valleys that harbor hundreds of natural rock caves and some fortified, underground bunkers.

"This area is different and more difficult than Tora Bora," says Mohammad Shakir Sahak, a tribal chief at Zarmat, which is north of Arma Al Qaeda base. "The Shahi Kot series of mountains and valleys are deeper, wider, and higher than Tora Bora."

Some 4,000 Afghan soldiers from Paktia, Logar, and Paktika Provinces have gathered at Shahi Kot to help US forces. They are flanking the US troops leading into forward positions and blocking possible escape routes.

Cmdr. Mohammad Naeem, the security chief of Zarmat District, along with 20 to 25 fighters, is blocking the route leading west from Arma.

Although he complains that he doesn't have enough ammunition, supplies, or other gear, he says: "I and my soldiers are here to block the fleeing route of Al Qaeda members who might flee from the Arma cave compound to Ghazni or to western areas," he says.

Cmdr. Raz Mohammad Totakhail, a Ghilzi warlord, along with 80 heavily armed fighters, is blocking the eastern route.

In an interview only 500 meters away from the Arma Al Qaeda base, he says: "It is very difficult to control the routes going out and coming into Arma base. The terrain is very difficult, it's very cold at this high altitude, and we don't have enough men, warm clothes, and enough communication equipment.

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