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If there is a part of the world that is still inaccessible to any but a special breed of mountain goats, it is the forbidding panhandle of Afghanistan’s Pamir Mountain area known as Little Pamir.
It is here that Osama bin Laden plans to make his last stand against American and allied forces, according to the intelligence sources of DEBKA-Net-Weekly.
The approximate locations of his bases are known to American strategists. But reaching them is a daunting prospect. The basic U.S. intelligence working proposition is that winkling the master terrorist out of his lair will not be achieved by going in with guns blazing and cannons booming. Neither will it be served by propping up the Northern Alliance of the Afghan opposition, or even by ousting the Taliban rulers in Kabul. Bin Laden will still elude them.
Therefore, the United States has posted a small force of Special Forces commandos – mostly Seals and Delta units – in the Tadjik center of Dzhartygumbez, no more than 35 miles from the Little Pamir panhandle, sending small squads in with orders to avoid engagements but searching for any clues to bin Laden’s whereabouts. Some have already skirmished with outlying al-Qaida patrols and sentries scattered around the mountain valleys.
The U.S. crack troops are escorted by Russian elite forces intelligence officers – armed with maps of a Little Pamir site the Soviet Union occupied and abandoned in 1993 – Russian troops permanently posted in Tadjikistan, and Tadjik mountain guides familiar with the smuggling trails between Russia, Afghanistan and China.
The Americans hope to cut the Pamir panhandle off, bottle bin Laden up in his retreat and then move in to capture him before the cruel mountain winter sets in. The first snow has already begun to fall.
Bounded by Tadjikistan in the north, Chinese Xinkiang in the east, Pakistan’s northern areas leading into Kashmir in the south, the peaks of the Pamir range average 20,000 feet. The tallest, towering to 24,590 feet, was dubbed “Communism” peak in the Soviet era, the highest mountain in the USSR.
Little Pamir is a finger pointing east. Its peaks, rising from a high foundation, are separated by wide, flat-bottomed valleys, where only low-growing plants, the arkhar mountain sheep and the kiik mountain goat, survive the severe conditions of the cold, high, snow-clad mountain desert. The population density of the Pamirs is one of the lowest in the world – predominantly Kazakhs in the west and Kirgiz in Little Pamir, who scrape a livelihood from primitive farming and smuggling.
The few roads follow ancient caravan routes through mountain passes to China’s northwestern Xinjiang province (formerly known as Chinese Turkestan) and south into Afghanistan’s Hindu Kush of which the Pamirs are an extension.
The road to China passes through the Kulik Pass of Little Pamir, with three wayside stations at Whakyir, Langar and Whakan. At Whakyir, the main Afghan-China route branches north heading into Tadjikistan and reaching Dzhartygumbez, where the U.S. anti-terrorist force has set up its forward base.
Bin Laden did not have to create his Pamir citadel from scratch. A civil engineer by trade, who grew up in one of the great building contracting family firms of Saudi Arabia, the Saudi millionaire terrorist found half-finished structures and foundations built in the Cold War period and abandoned.
Soviet tacticians, who judged Little Pamir of paramount strategic value, began building a top-secret nuclear IBM arsenal to support Moscow’s third strike capability. The location is such that anyone perched atop those peaks commands a visual and electronic vista spanning northwest China, most of Central Asia, Afghanistan and northern Pakistan. The site came out of the battles of the 1980-1989 Russian-Afghan War unscathed, because even the hardiest Afghan fighters found it inaccessible. The Russians continued to work on the site for four years after the Red Army was driven out of Afghanistan. However, the desolate terrain that defied the most intrepid of mountaineering spies, also beat the Soviet builders and technicians, who were also bedeviled by the creeping forays of Kirgiz and Kazakh Islamic militants, whom bin Laden recruited in the ’80s.
In 1993, the Russians abandoned the site and bin Laden took over.
While moving his command round various sanctuaries such as Jalalabad, Afghanistan and Sudan, he began converting the deserted Soviet site in Little Pamir into his last-chance citadel.
The retreat is self-supporting. The Russians left behind functioning electricity. Bin Laden and his handful of close aides, having laid in essential stores for many years, live off the land. His citadel has three fortresses: a set of chambers buried in the mountains south of the Sari Qul Valley; a site on the Tadjik frontier north of Buzai Gumabad, and a fort carved out of the mountains northeast of Wakhyir, the wayside station to China.
He is protected by a number of outer defensive rings: Under 200 close followers occupy his main retreat; some 2,500-3,000 al-Qaida partisans, his eyes and ears, are distributed at key points of Little Pamir’s mountain valleys; local fundamentalists, a wild lot whom no conqueror ever tamed, are the third ring, and, in the last resort, he can count on the ardent Moslem Uygar militants and ethnic Kazaks in Chinese Xinjiang.
A cardinal problem for the United States in keeping bin Laden caged is China’s refusal to cooperate in its war on terror. While the Russians have strung 25-30,000 troops along their frontier with Afghanistan, the Afghan-Chinese frontier into Xinjiang is wide open. Bin Laden can look forward to a helping hand there from the local Muslim radicals, over whom Beijing, in any case, has little control. China also appears to be ready to withdraw from the Bishbek Protocol signed last April by China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Tadjikistan and Kyrgizia setting up a combined multinational Rapid Reaction Collective Security Force to combat Islamic terrorist unrest in their territories, and headquartered in Bishbek, capital of Kyrgistan.
Intelligence sources point out that bin Laden’s retreat to Little Pamir does not impair the functioning of his al-Qaida network and its allied Islamic fundamentalist groups, including the ruling Taliban of Kabul.
Armed in advance with guidelines and missions, they operate under five autonomous commands: the Afghanistan-Pakistan-Tadjikistan command, headed by bin Laden himself; the Central Asian command, under the Uzbek fundamentalist Jumma Mamangani, based in the strategic Ferghana Valley that straddles Kyrgizia, Tadjikistan and Uzbekistan; the Balkan command, under the Egyptian Jihad Islami Chief Ayman al-Zawahiri, based in Albania or Kosovo and covering also Europe and the UK; the Gulf-Middle East command under the Tehran-based former Hezbollah hostage-taker Imad Mughniyeh; and the North Africa-Spain-France command, headed by the Algerian Islamic extremist Fateh Kamel, who enjoys strong links to the international corporate world.
Al Zawahri and Kamel also lead operations in North America by remote control through deep-cover cells and sleepers, mainly through Canada.
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