As US officials declare Operation Anaconda a success, Al Qaeda is regrouping with fresh recruits and funds.
SHAH-E KOT, AFGHANISTAN
The slate at the jagged edges of the cave, on the main road that marks the start of the now-famous Shah-e Kot Mountains, feathers in shards that can be easily plucked away.
It is difficult to fathom that some of the most-wanted terrorists on earth lurked inside caves of such seemingly brittle stone. But perhaps like the strength of the Al Qaeda and Taliban the caves are less breakable than they appear. Deeper into the mountainside, the rock gets harder. And this cave, like so many others, had a secret exit.
To Afghans who would like to plug the fugitives' endless escape routes, and Western analysts who hoped that US-led coalition forces would have had more success hunting down such a technologically inferior enemy, cave redoubts like this reveal much about the evolving strategy of Al Qaeda and the Taliban. They also suggest that the allied forces may be skimming the surface of what the guerrilla movement has in store.
This week, as US military officials announced a successful completion of Operation Anaconda, the only thing left inside this vacated cave were tire tracks in the mud. Malik Jan, an Afghan army commander, led the Monitor into the cave, where he shook his head, then bent down to a spring-fed puddle to drink and wash his face.
For the mujahideen who fought invading Soviet soldiers in the 1980s, he explained, the tunnel was an old stomping ground. This time around, they just made it bigger and better digging it to twice its original size so pickup trucks could drive inside.
Al Qaeda, too, is thinking bigger and better than anyone expected. And they are reportedly regrouping with additional funds in the region. But both Afghan and international military analysts say that the caves the focus of US firepower in Tora Bora last December and here in Shah-e Kot this month may be decoys that Al Qaeda is laying out for coalition forces to target, while the planning for guerrilla warfare here and terrorism abroad is done in other quarters.
"You're giving the enemy a target so that he attacks that. And your enemy protects you, because he's busy fighting you, and you're not there," explains Paul Beaver, an independent London-based military analyst. "The Al Qaeda and Taliban are actually much better equipped than we expected. They're talking across the Web so they can't be traced. They're not the simple fighters we thought they were."