WASHINGTON – In the hallways of the Pentagon, the Al Qaeda men fighting and dying in the frigid mountains of eastern Afghanistan are called "dead-enders."
U.S. officials don't want to negotiate with them. There isn't any expectation that they will surrender.
The Bush administration believes the conflict can end only with their death or imprisonment, which sets the stage for what could be a brutal fight to the last man.
"There is no treaty you can sign with the terrorist," Vice President Dick Cheney said, not long after this week's battle was joined between U.S. troops and Al Qaeda forces. "There is no arms control agreement that we can enter into that is going to solve this problem. There is no negotiation, no summit meeting that will in fact end the terrorist threat to the United States."
The only way to end the threat is "to get the terrorists before they can launch more attacks against us," he said.
Pentagon officials believe those holed up in the mountains, fighting a U.S.-led force for the past week, constitute the remaining core of Al Qaeda, including perhaps dozens of men law enforcers would recognize.
Most are Arabs, Uzbeks or Chechens, with a handful of Pakistanis and Afghan Taliban mixed in.
Among the fighters, intelligence officials believe, are some of the most notorious terrorists and insurgents from more than a dozen countries, including Yemen, Iran, Syria, Iraq and Pakistan, according to a U.S. military official who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Some military experts question whether American forces even want a cease-fire.
"These are people who have been at war with the United States long before Sept. 11," said Dennis Tyler, an analyst at the Center for Defense Information in Washington. "The truth is, they would go right back to business as usual if they were allowed to escape."
It's unclear how many Al Qaeda fighters are positioned in the crags and ridges surrounding the Shah-e-Kot valley, or why they converged there.
Some clues have emerged, however, to how long the fighters have been gathering.
In early January, 600 Arab and Chechen fighters showed up at the village of Shah-e-Kot, telling the residents to leave or risk being caught in fighting, according to villagers who talked to an Associated Press reporter, Kathy Gannon.
The fighters brought hundreds of bags of flour and sugar, weapons such as mortars and cannons, and some wives and children, one farmer said. The group also included some members of the Afghan Taliban militia and a few Pakistanis, he said.
Surrender was never an option given to the Al Qaeda forces making what appears to have been a last stand.
"There was no effort made whatsoever to negotiate surrender of anyone," war commander Gen. Tommy Franks said this week. "This, as I said, is an operation where we had been keeping operation security very much on our minds, and it was conducted with tactical surprise."
Part of what separates the current conflict from past wars is the way U.S. officials perceive the threat posed by Al Qaeda members. They are dangerous not just as a fighting force but as individuals who could cause great damage in acts of terrorism, even if the larger group were to be dismantled.
Still, William Hartung, a senior military analyst for the World Policy Institute in New York, questions the U.S. approach.
"Does it really need to be until the last man is killed?" Hartung said. "It's just become an assumption. There could be repercussions and a decline in support from the world community if the United States kills every last man and never makes an attempt to gain a cease-fire."
Early this week, the mission commander, Maj. Gen. Frank Hagenbeck, acknowledged that U.S. forces were annihilating Al Qaeda forces.
"On Tuesday we caught several hundred of them with RPGs and mortars heading toward the fight. We body-slammed them today and killed hundreds of those guys," the commander said.