JALALABAD, Afghanistan - A place called Milawa on the backside of the Tora Bora hill may be the last theater of war left in Afghanistan.
With a cease-fire set for today in the southern city of Kandahar, the focus of the U.S. hunt for Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaida network will largely narrow to the high-elevation woods about 30 miles south of Jalalabad.
About 200 U.S. troops are in the vicinity of Milawa and Jalalabad - up from earlier estimates of about 20 Special Forces - and U.S. cargo planes and helicopters have landed at the Jalalabad Airport in recent days and left logistical supplies, said Jalalabad Mayor Engineer Ghafar.
Despite unrelenting air bombardment yesterday on Tora Bora and Milawa, and the second day of an offensive by Afghan mujahedeen fighters against al-Qaida, the task of finding bin Laden and much of his organization remains difficult.
"We have taken the center of the Tora Bora base," Afghan commander Haji Ayub told reporters outside the city yesterday. "But there is still fierce fighting, even hand-to-hand combat."
On Wednesday, the military commanders had predicted a victory in four days, a forecast that appeared unlikely because of the incremental advances yesterday - but nevertheless, this war has produced a relatively swift timetable for the Taliban's and al-Qaida's demise.
The difficulties arise because the bombing of the remote area of caves and tunnels, which was given to bin Laden by a local Afghan chieftan in 1996, has probably scattered the fighters, many believe.
Al-Qaida troops, most of them from Arab nations, could still escape over the snowcapped White Mountains into Pakistan. And the lack of contact with al-Qaida members - diminishing the chances of a negotiated surrender - increases the odds that the fighting will produce a blood bath.
In Washington, U.S. defense officials said the cooperation between the Afghan fighters and U.S. and British special forces had improved efforts at pinpointing concentrations of al-Qaida fighters.
"We have begun to provide support to the opposition groups that are moving through the valleys in the Tora Bora complex," said Marine Gen. Peter Pace, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
"As the opposition groups move their troops through that complex," he added, "we're able to provide them the air support that they can help direct, because they're able to see the caves that are active, they can see the caves that are not, and we're able to provide much more direct support for them."
Defense officials said planes are dropping precision-guided bombs into the openings of caves. But in the end, bombing may not destroy the organization.
"They can still escape into Pakistan," said Haji Malik Nazir, a village elder. "It is difficult but possible over the mountains. The Pakistanis, however, oppose the entry of al-Qaida because they could create more problems for Pakistan."
Ghafar, the Jalalabad mayor and a U.S.-trained handler of hand-held Stinger missiles, said the Afghan fighters must quickly surround al-Qaida or risk watching several hundred fighters flee into the mountains. A trip on foot from Milawa into Pakistan could take two days and one night.
He also said that Tora Bora is not the focus now. "Tora Bora is empty," the mayor said. "The main place is Milawa."
Milawa is the southwest side of the Tora Bora hill. Small caves were built in the 1980s to protect mujahedeen fighters against Soviet troops.
"After the war against the Soviets, many of the fighters just remained there," Nazir said.
"Milawa is a good place for hiding," said Ghafar, who visited Milawa in 1991. "When I was there, I saw only a few little caves. Osama bin Laden and the Arabs dug more and more caves in this place."