Local Afghan villagers called it "the Wolves' Frontier" and gave it a wide berth. The Americans call it "Tarnak Farms" and are giving it a fine-toothed comb.
What's going on now at the former Al Qaeda complex near the meandering Tarnak River south of Kandahar represents where the war on terrorism has gone since the announced fall of Tora Bora to the north--disappearing, at least figuratively speaking, behind miles and miles of yellow crime scene tape.
Operation Enduring Freedom has entered a new, less visible phase: It has become a police investigation, a real-life, military version of "NYPD Blue" in which 15,000-pound "daisy cutter" bombs have given way to shoe leather.
"Tough, dirty work," Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld called it Wednesday. "People are getting frostbite. It's cold. It's dark a good deal of the time. The weather's been terrible."
Yet if Osama bin Laden is brought to justice and the Al Qaeda network is disabled, much of the credit may belong to the plodding effort of special teams now sifting through the evidence at Tarnak Farms and elsewhere.
Although the United States believes it has killed or captured important figures in Al Qaeda and the Taliban, a senior Defense Department official says the continued absence of a clear-cut finale necessitates a time-consuming endgame.
In the words of Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz, "The bell ending the first round hasn't rung yet."
Pentagon sources describe the new phase as a three-pronged effort:
* Inspecting captured installations such as Tarnak Farms.
* Screening and interrogating captured soldiers and officials.
* Searching Afghanistan's famous caves in the final chase after Al Qaeda and Taliban leaders who remain at large.
All demand a slow, painstaking approach. Although traditional surveillance continues from satellites and aircraft, the main effort now is low-tech, low-level and piecemeal.
It is what's left to do when success doesn't come in the first flush of victory.
The Tarnak River wanders through southern Afghanistan, creating a narrow spit of habitable land in the desolate, largely empty plain that stretches away to the Pakistani border. Along the river, at a place called Lewa Sarhadi, Bin Laden's organization built a sprawling camp that became one of its main training and operations centers.
The site has attracted high-level interest because U.S. intelligence analysts believe it was central to the terrorists' efforts to develop chemical, biological and even radioactive weapons. The possibility that Bin Laden might obtain such weapons has been a matter of general concern from the beginning, but that concern has sharpened noticeably in recent days.
Gathering Samples for Testing Back in U.S.
Gen. Tommy Franks, the U.S. commander of the campaign in Afghanistan, said that information already gained "alluded" to the manufacture of poisons.
Accordingly, special operations forces, explosive ordnance disposal experts and technical intelligence specialists of the Army and the Defense Intelligence Agency, together with elite chemical and biological weapons handlers from the Army's Edgewood Arsenal in Maryland, searched Tarnak Farms last week for evidence pointing toward weapons of mass destruction. They gathered soil samples and other material for further testing in the United States.
While evidence of unconventional weapons gets top priority, investigators are casting a wider net. They are collecting communications equipment, videotapes, computer drives and disks, documentation, passports and ID cards, notebooks, even phone bills and records. The goal is to build a more precise picture of Bin Laden's network and its links to the Taliban and other organizations.
Such information, Wolfowitz said, "can lead us to the capture of other terrorists and, I would say, particularly the capture of terrorists here in the United States or in other places where they may be planning operations."
As the searches go forward, sources say intelligence work is being conducted among thousands of prisoners in the hands of the Northern Alliance and tribal authorities. Several hundred Al Qaeda fighters have also been captured across the Pakistani border since the fall of Tora Bora, Rumsfeld said Wednesday.
Although Al Qaeda cells are known to be compartmentalized and the networks decentralized, the prisoners captured in more than two months of fighting have opened up a potential bonanza of what is called "human intelligence"--sources knowledgeable about specific aspects of the terrorist organization's plans and operations.
Sorting Out Leaders From Rank and File
The sorting process begins with CIA paramilitary and Special Forces liaison personnel, accompanied by interrogation specialists. They confer with local commanders, looking for detainees of interest. If someone named on the U.S. watch list--a roster of high-ranking suspected terrorists and others--is found, the Americans ask to take him into custody.
But others, such as officers or foreigners, are also screened and debriefed to establish their identity and gauge their willingness to provide information.
In the popular mind, Al Qaeda and the Taliban's hard core are fanatics--many from outside Afghanistan--who prefer martyrdom to surrender. In fact, that is not true of all of them.
Some may be susceptible to the same combinations of threats and blandishments that lead other kinds of prisoners to cooperate.
When U.S. operatives reached Tarnak Farms, they found that U.S. planes had carpet-bombed the compound with leaflets advertising Washington's $25-million reward for Bin Laden. Officials hoped the reward would prove "motivational" in their quest for information.
This hasn't yet proved true. But investigators remain optimistic; the process is far from over. Some prisoners may have good reasons to prefer cooperating with the United States to being turned over to governments such as Egypt, or being left to the mercies of local Afghan commanders.
That's partly why U.S. officials are being circumspect about identifying whom they have in custody. "One of the reasons not to start identifying them yet is we're not sure that their comrades necessarily know that we have them," one official said.
In the search of caves, the task falls largely to anti-Taliban and U.S. Special Forces in and around Tora Bora. The job is grisly, and bigger than expected.
After weeks of air attacks, military and intelligence specialists are finding mostly bodies in the caves.
Still, each cave must be dealt with, and there are many more of them than U.S. planners thought.
As Gen. Peter Pace, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, described the process: "You have several valleys in the Tora Bora complex. Each of them is several miles long. In each of those valleys, you have several hundred caves. And you want to go through very methodically, one by one, and, if it's been closed by bombs, determine whether or not you want to open it up to see what's in there. And if it's not been closed by bombs, you have to determine whether or not it's worth going in."
The sheer number of caves is daunting, according to an intelligence analyst who has worked on Afghan targeting from the beginning of the campaign.
"We thought we had a pretty good understanding, from agency [CIA] case officers who worked the Afghan war against the Soviets, from moujahedeen, from emigres and from alliance sources, where and how many caves there were," he said. "But we've found that there were many more than we realized."
Mapping and searching the caves, while difficult and dangerous, are critical because of the chance that Bin Laden may not have escaped the military assault.
"I think it's possible he could be dead in the bottom of one of them," the senior Defense Department official said.
If he's not, the slow but steady gumshoe work of sifting through the detritus of war may offer the best hope of finding out where he went.
Possibly more important, it may help roll up Bin Laden's operations worldwide. And that, even more than bringing justice to the man who bragged about Sept. 11, is the final requirement for victory in Afghanistan.
William M. Arkin is an adjunct professor at the U.S. Air Force's School of Advanced Airpower Studies, a consultant to nonprofit organizations and academic institutions, and the author of several books on military affairs.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times