- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 7, 2002

KHOST, Afghanistan In the dead of night, about 30 British commandos, led by an Urdu-speaking officer who identified himself only as James, helicoptered onto a remote mountaintop to establish one of several secret bases on Afghanistan's border with Pakistan.
As James' men fanned out over the rugged, shrub-covered mountains, he climbed down to the dry riverbed.
There, over a cup of green tea, the British officer, whose face was blackened with camouflage paint, conferred with his Afghan allies while somewhere in the caves and gullies around them, small groups of al Qaeda fighters camped out hiding, but also ready to attack.
During the recent encounter in the rugged mountains of eastern Afghanistan, a stone's throw from the Pakistan border, British and American special forces were setting up a string of forward bases from which they are pressing the hunt for Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda.
The bases are a key element in what is now being called "the Campaign."
The American and British-lead coalition was joined last month by about 130 British commandos, who flew into Khost to join some 200 U.S. Special Forces troops and soldiers from the 101st Airborne Division.
The Campaign is charged with the newest and most dangerous phase of the hunt for al Qaeda, which is centered in the nearby mountains and ravines.
The hunt is fraught with tensions between feuding Afghan commanders, who have joined the American and British forces in an area where sympathy for al Qaeda runs deep.
It is also faced with an increasingly elusive enemy that has been mounting hit-and-run attacks.
In the month since Operation Anaconda, in which al Qaeda fighters massed in the mountains of Shah-e-Kot and were pounded by American bombs, bin Laden's men have split into well-armed groups of 10 or 12 men and escaped through the gullies and hidden in caves honeycombing the mountains.
Although there are varied accounts of how many remain, one senior commander in Khost said he believed there could be up to 7,000.
In the last two weeks, these men, who are fed and supplied by Afghan al Qaeda hiding in the town of Khost, have attacked the Campaign's bases three times.
Although bin Laden is not believed to be among them, Afghan commanders say that Ayman Zawahiri, his mentor and aide, who was sighted after escaping from Shah-e-Kot, may be.
"We have friends and spies in the villages around Shah-e-Kot who say that he escaped from there," said Kamal Khan, one of the Campaign's Afghan commanders in Khost.
The reports have also been corroborated by Afghans in Khost and Gardez.
Last week, in a rare glimpse into a war that has largely been conducted in secret, a group of reporters was taken to the Campaign's secret forward bases: a series of small forts and encampments, protected by four rings of checkposts, manned by heavily armed Afghans.
As we neared the mountains, traveling along dry riverbeds and through ravines, we spotted the first camps: white army tents pitched on hilltops. Outside, Afghan fighters with yellow gorse flowers in their hats lolled in the sun as reconnaissance aircraft droned overhead.
Close by were the ruined buildings of Al Badr the terrorist-training camp, set within a ring of hills, where bin Laden once welcomed Pakistani journalists with a fusillade of rocket fire. The camp was hit by American cruise missiles in 1998 in retaliation for al Qaeda's bombing of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.
Farther along, the ravine was pockmarked with well-built caves and tunnels, roofed with bricks and plaster, that had been used by anti-Soviet mujahideen and, later, al Qaeda.
The Afghan fighters who had insisted on escorting us for our "protection," then led us into a wide, dried-up riverbed, ringed by hills dotted with small forts.
Last month, one of the forts was attacked late at night by fighters armed with rocket-propelled grenades and Kalashnikovs.
It was the third al Qaeda attack in two weeks, and although it was repulsed by Afghan soldiers from the Campaign, bin Laden's men vanished into the night.

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