Produced by Scott LaPierre and T.S. Amarasiriwardena /

A reporter's notebook

E-MAIL E-mail to a friend  | 

Read the full print story

By Charles M. Sennott / Globe Staff
SARKANI, Afghanistan -- A full moon rose over a jagged mountain range here on the border with Pakistan as US Army Staff Sergeant Michael Nye peered warily into the gathering darkness.  | 

Hear Charles Sennott on WGBH's 'The World'

Sennott takes listeners on a journey of sound through Afghanistan and Pakistan to explore the hunt for bin Laden and the resurgence of the Taliban.

The Boston Globe’s Charles Sennott journeyed to Afghanistan and Pakistan last month to follow the trail of those hunting for Osama bin Laden and to document the successes, the failures, and the challenges that lie ahead in what Washington has come to call “the long war” against terrorism. For Sennott, it was the first time back to Afghanistan since the fall of 2001 when he covered the U.S.-led offensive in Afghanistan in the aftermath of September 11. Above is an interactive map, a chance to hear the voices in his story and go behind the scenes on a journey through Pakistan and Afghanistan. Below is a journal of his travels on both sides of the border.



The plane from Boston via London touched down in Islamabad in the dead of night. The blast of heat and noise and frantic motion that is Pakistan confronted me the second the frosted glass doors slid open from the air-conditioned terminal. The assault on the senses brought me right back to how I remembered Pakistan from the last time I was working there as a journalist more than a decade ago. Back then I was working on a story on the birth of a new Islamic movement known as “the Taliban.” It was in its infancy then and it was supported by America. The U.S. State Department then saw the Taliban as a favorable alternative to the brutal warlords who had fought to expel the Soviet Union but then turned on each other in the aftermath and left Afghanistan a bombed out shell in the early and mid 1990s.

Back then I visited madrassas, religious schools, that were teeming with adolescent students, pious idealists who were inspired by the Taliban’s desire to create a puritanical Islamic state. Back then I was also there reporting on the fall 1994 capture of Ramzi Yousef, who was the mastermind of the first World Trade Center bombing in February, 1993. Yousef had been tracked down in Pakistan after his laptop computer was discovered in a hotel room in the Philippines which provided contacts and a horrifying blue print of a plan to blow 10 American-bound airliners and create a terrorist attack on a scale that the world had never seen.

The continuum of the reporting – then and now -- struck me. Now 12 years later, the Taliban is reconstituting itself here in Pakistan where it was born. And once again I would be visiting madrassas, and hearing the thundering sermons of puritanical imams. And here I was again reporting on a manhunt for a terrorist, not Ramzi Yousef but Osama bin Laden whose al Qaeda organization had, according to counter-terrorism officials, completed the plot to topple the twin towers that Yousef set in motion eight years before the attacks of September 11th. . The White House has come to call the struggle against terrorism “the long war,” and indeed it is a long battle. But it is one that began long before September 11th and which always seem to bring reporters covering it circling back through Pakistan. Then as now Pakistan is still a front line in “the long war.”



On assignments in places like Pakistan, where reporters are not always welcome in the mosques and madrassas and the remote villages seized with militancy, getting a good translator and a good driver is always the first step in reporting, and a crucially important step. You are essentially building a team when you land in places like this. And the key to doing that is a good local contact. The Boston Globe has a great contact in Islamabad in Declan Walsh, a freelance reporter who contributes to the paper from there. He helped us to get started and we ended up working together for several days. We were joined by a Pakistani freelance photographer named Asim. And there are lots of details to take care of on the ground. You have to pick up a local SIM card for a telephone so you can send and receive local calls. I also typically take a practice run with a satellite telephone known as B-GAN. It is a laptop-sized gadget that has a microwave antenna that, in this region, connects with a satellite over the Indian Ocean and provides broadband-speed connection for a laptop computer. For a reporter, it means you can be connected anywhere in the world no matter how remote. The Globe’s IT support guru Sean Mullin even provided me with a power cord that can run off the battery of any vehicle. So I could be in any Jeep in any remote region and stay working. I also got a trusted hand-held satellite Thuraya phone up and running, which is used to check in with the office and home.

The technology for a foreign correspondent working in remote parts of the world has changed dramatically since I was last in Pakistan 10 years ago and even in the five years since I had been to Afghanistan. Think about the revolution in communication in the last ten years that has brought us one advance after another at the speed of nano technology. For those of us who have followed its arc – from prehistoric days to the information age – it’s worth pondering a minute to think about how far it has come from the days of Radio Shack TR-80 computers, commonly known as “Trash 80s,” which were powered by four size D batteries. Back as recently as the 1980s they were standard issue for foreign correspondents. These old clunkers allowed you to see just a few lines of type at a time and connected through funky old rubber couplers that you would attach to an analog phone by unscrewing the ear piece and attaching alligator clips to the posts. Back then we would type out our stories on an old DOS system and hold our breath for that scratchy noise that came just before the song-bird sound of a connection. And as we’d watch the text slowly scroll down, we’d imagine the data making the journey down old phone lines that snaked through whatever hell hole we were in, under the ocean and up into some routing system in America and finally up Morrissey Boulevard into the newsroom. Man, thinking like that can make you feel old. So let’s move on.

Our goal was to set out on a journey to the Dir Province, the rugged and remote mountainous terrain along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. But before we got there we had work to do in and a round Islamabad..


The morning began with a journey to Rawalpindi, a town located about 45 minutes south of Islamabad. Rawalpindi is an old military garrison from the days of the British empire in this region. There are colonial remnants that still linger. A large Anglican church in the center of town is one of them. Children in ragged shirts playing cricket in a muddy, vacant lot is another. But the most obvious is the neat order of the streets and the colonial tone of the architecture in the military compound where Pakistan’s generals and intelligence officers take up residence. It is here where General Pervez Musharraf, who is also the president, still resides and it is here on a bridge where Islamic militants tried to kill him in 2003 and only narrowly missed.

We met with these generals and intelligence officers and were struck most by their bleak assessment of the situation on all fronts. Politically, many of them raised questions about Musharraf and his ability to hold on to power. They all confirmed that the Taliban was indeed resurgent and some of the former generals and former intelligence officials expressed their support for the Taliban and their dismay at American policy in the region in the aftermath of September 11. Almost all of them said they felt that America was pursuing misguided policies in the Middle East and Central Asia which were serving to alienate them from the Muslim world which was roiling with rage against America.

In the end of the day, I visited a madrassa not unlike the ones I had visited ten years ago and was struck by the militancy of the professors and the students and the way they voiced support for the Taliban and respect for bin Laden as someone who has stood up to the United States. The name of the school was Jamia Feridia. It was chilling to hear the support for bin Laden and jaw dropping to hear the conspiracy theories they embrace on how bin Laden did not actually have anything to do with the attacks which they see as a vast conspiracy involving, as they spin it, the CIA and the Israeli Mossad. This is not an opinion only of a lunatic fringe, it was voiced by an imam of one of the largest religious schools in Islamabad and a former director general of the Pakistan intelligence agency. It is frighteningly mainstream.

Finally the sun set and in the cool darkness of evening, I accepted an invitation to the home of a “Western diplomat.” It is a phrase we journalists use a lot to provide cover for the men and women who are based as diplomats in the region and want to give a candid assessment of things without saying something undiplomatic that could come back to haunt them and their home country. It is a ground rule of anonymity we accept, particularly in the early phase of reporting when you are still trying to get your feet on the ground. This “Western diplomat” offered not only insights but several cool cans of Guinness Stout which were welcome in a country where no alcohol is served in public places.


The U.S. Embassy is a fortress, one of the most heavily guarded embassies in the world in a country that seems to be increasingly teeming with hatred for America, or at least for Washington’s policies in the Muslim world. The raw intensity of the animosity is palpable, Pakistanis insist they have nothing against the American people but blast the American government in a way that goes far beyond the cliché anti-Americanism that has spewed forth from so many parts of the world for so long.

Evidence of the deepening security concerns for Americans here is expressed in the State Department policy for its employees here that forbids them from having their families or loved ones live with them or visit them. At the entrance to the consular section of the embassy there were sharp shooter nests built of sandbags. The staff seemed particularly jumpy and on edge.

But inside the embassy is one of America’s more experienced and knowledgeable diplomats, U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker. For him, the "the long war" didn't begin on September 11th, but goes back at least 25 years when he was assigned to Lebanon. He still has a shredded piece of the flag of state from the 1983 U.S. Embassy bombing in Beirut which he keeps framed on his wall. He was also the first U.S. ambassador to hoist the American flag over a new American embassy in Iraq after the toppling of Saddam Hussein in 2003.

For almost two hours, Crocker talked at length about the struggle in Pakistan and Afghanistan to defeat strains of Islamic militancy that had taken root, he said, in Pakistan over the last 30 years.


We drove from Islamabad to Peshawar in the driving rain, the tail end of the monsoon season which had come back with a vengeance. There we drove straight to the home of Rahimullah Yusufzai, who for most of the last 30 years has worked as a journalist in the Northwest Frontier Province of Pakistan. He was here throughout the years of the mujahadeen, when Afghan fighters backed through billions of dollars in covert aid from the U.S. fought against the Soviet occupation in Afghanistan. He is an educated and refined gentleman who has worked for the BBC and Time magazine and contributed to countless books and documentaries. He has interviewed bin Laden twice and is widely considered to have the most extensive contacts inside the Taliban and, at least in earlier times, inside Al Qaeda. His home is down a quiet street in the bustling town of Peshawar with its open-air markets and smells of spice and filth and its sounds of horns blazing and donkey carts clip-clopping down the street. Yusufzai is a classic example of the kind of contact that foreign correspondents coming into a complex region rely upon for the lay of the land.

From there, we went to the noon prayer at the oldest mosque in Peshawar. At the 17th century Mohabed Khan Mosque, we were invited to sit with Mullah Mohammed Yousef Qureshi on the floor of his office. He was dressed in white flowing robes and wore black kohl eye shadow which is a sign of piety in this part of the Muslim world. He is the imam, or cleric, of the mosque but also a religious scholar who serves on Pakistan’s High Court for Sharia, or Islamic Law. The interview did not last long. He railed against the United States and its “anti-Muslim policies” in Iraq, in Afghanistan, and in Lebanon and elsewhere. He fumed that America has no proof that Osama bin Laden actually carried out the attacks of 9-11. And he talked of his support for bin Laden and for the Taliban. When asked how he could as a Muslim scholar support someone like bin Laden who has endorsed the killing of civilians, he said, “America believes it has a right to defend itself and Osama believes he has the right to defend Muslims.”

He didn’t want to talk much after that. But later he delivered a sermon from the podium inside the mosque which was packed with men. In his sermon, my interview with him became the center of his message.

Here’s an excerpt from Qureshi’s sermon:

“Often the people from the Western press come here and asked me why I am opposing the US … Today an American journalist came to me with this question. But he should know that all those who pray to Allah are against America … We are friends of Osama because he is a friend of Islam and is standing up to the Western world … We are friends of the Taliban because they are working on behalf of Islam.”

As he spoke, the faces of the prayerful turned to me with looks of disapproval and mistrust. In the crowd that milled in the streets after the sermon, it was clear we were not welcome and there was a palpable, seething violence in the air and we disappeared without speaking with the parishioners.


The monsoon rains followed us on what turned out to be a treacherous journey. More than 200 people were killed along the road in flash floods and mud slides. A bridge collapse swept away 100 lives this day in the Dir Province. It hardly made the news back in America. It is not the kind of danger you think of when you think of the perils of conflict-zone reporting. The big fear is ending up in an orange jump suit in a hostage video on the internet not boulders tumbling down a muddy hillside. Nevertheless, traveling in remote terrain like this means you must take on the same risks that come with daily life here for everyone else. And here, lethal mudslides are a regular feature of the rainy season. The peril we faced on the road had little to do with reporting on bin Laden but everything to do with the desperate need for aid in Pakistan and what many feel is a failure by the U.S. to live up to its promise to provide more aid in return for Pakistan’s assistance in the struggle against terrorism.

Once we finally made it through the treacherous roads, we wound our way past rice paddies and terraced farmland into a remote hamlet in the Dir Province. There we found Shah Mohammad, a local baker who was wrongly accused and held for 18 months at the U.S. detention facitility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. He told of the ordeal of his arrest, what he described as torture, and his eventual release. His story is told and retold here and has become woven into the hatred for American policies that is so often expressed in this remote province near the border with Afghanistan.

One local group that has formed out of this contempt for the American presence in Afghanistan is called the Movement for the Implementation of the Sharia of Mohammed, which sent several thousand jihadists in a kind of ragtag brigade to help the Taliban and Al Qaeda resist the American forces. More than half of the members were killed, according to the No. 2 man in the organization, Maulana Alam Khan. We interviewed Khan in a small mosque in the village of Batkhela. Wearing the black turbin that is the fashion of the Taliban, he said, "It is America's actions that have made so many despise it. Before five years ago, you did not hear this hatred for America, not until it began attacking Muslims. And now it is required that we resist."

We tried to make our way back to Peshawar at the end of the day, but the mudslides were worsening. We holed up in a road-side hotel in Swat and the next day waited for the rain to let up and set out on a different road through the Swat Valley which took us along a breathtakingly beautiful mountain road. There were work crews there blasting the huge boulders that had fallen in the road and we got to talking with the manager of the road crew, Azar Madin Khatak.

“America is our friend,” he said, practicing the English he has been studying in courses at night after working long, hot days on the road crew. “America helps our government and we respect America and we respect American people … An educated person cannot say America is bad or American people is bad. But unfortunately in Pakistan some religious people say that America is not good. But our feeling is very good for America. It is false that America is bad.”

Khatak’s crew finally cleared the road, and we made it back to Peshawar.


The flight from Peshawar to Kabul took us almost directly over the path of Tora Bora, the mountains in Afghanistan along the border with Pakistan where the US military had bin Laden cornered in December 2001, according to U.S., Pakistani and Afghan sources. Bin Laden escaped in the hills, the officials say, and as we flew over them, the impenetrability of the terrain became dramatically clear. The rugged peaks and sheer mountain faces revealed just how inhospitable the border area was.

When the plane touched down, it taxied past the rows of aircraft on the tarmac which revealed a lot about the nature of the effort in Afghanistan. Some of them were U.S. military planes, but at least half were British, French, German, and Canadian and a quarter more were marked with the emblems of the world’s largest Non-governmental Organizations, or NGOs, there to deliver aid for development.

Inside the airport at the baggage claim, I saw a man checking email on a mini laptop computer which was connected to the internet via a blue-tooth wireless mobile phone. It was an impressive first glimpse of how much Afghanistan had changed since I landed there on a rickety old UN flight with the Northern Alliance on September 21, 2001. Back then, with the emotions and fear of 9-11 still raw, we stepped off a plane in Faizabad to find a moonscape of bombed out ruins. We were a small group of about 10 reporters and among the first news organizations to land on the ground to cover what promised to be a US response. We were greeted with the blank stares of a clutch of men and boys clad in rags who stared at the small group of Western journalists as if they had landed from another planet. And indeed we felt like we had.

But this time my first impression was formed by this man with his laptop dressed in a well-tailored, pin-striped suit and we struck up a conversation.

Tamim Sami, 41, of Washington, hails from an Afghan family that fled the Soviet invasion in the early 1980s and came of age in America, where he went to high school and college. Three years ago he returned to Afghanistan and started an information technology company.

“The change has been dramatic,” he said, “but we are waiting to see if we can make the turn to a better environment. The optimism we came with is running out slowly.”

“Why?” I asked.

“We don’t see a coordinated plan for getting the country out of the rut that it is in … People are going to schools, but they aren’t good schools. Corruption is rampant. Poppy production is hitting record highs, a feudal system is back.”

I responded, “That doesn’t sound good, and you haven’t even touched on the deteriorating security situation or the failure to find bin Laden.”

He said, “I don’t think much about bin Laden , that is an American problem.”

But you are American as well, no?

“Bin Laden is the last thing on my mind and on the minds of policy makers as well.”

From the airport, I headed to the Guest House of Peter Juvenal, a British military officer turned BBC cameraman who lives in Afghanistan and has been in and out of the country for most of the last 25 years. He is a good host to journalist with a keen sense of what they need: solid internet connections, low-key-but-effective security forces, and a well-stocked bar.


At the front gate of the U.S. military compound here is a muscle bound Afghan with wrap around shades, an American uniform, and a bandana. He’s known as “Rambo.” The U.S. forces here are fond of him as a keeper of the gate for their forces which every day go through the ritual of admitting local workers, searching them, scanning them, and then admitting them to the base. Rambo keeps the unwanted Afghans away from the desk and often wields a cane to go after young children who beg and pick pocket at the entrance to the gate.

Rambo let us through. I was traveling with Gary Knight, an award winning photographer with the agency “VII,” who had also covered the U.S.-led offensive in Afghanistan five years ago and for both us it promised to be an interesting journey to see how the country had changed, and why the hunt for bin Laden had stalled.

Inside Camp Phoenix, there is a large memorial to September 11th with a piece of one of the girders there and some of the soldiers touch the steel before they go off on operations for good luck, or maybe just a physical touchstone to remember why they are there.


We were told we had an interview with President Karzai. So I pulled a wrinkled blue blazer out of my back pack. Even with the oppressive heat, appearances matter in this part of the world and we didn’t want to be the reporters who appeared to insult the president of the country. After all Karzai was an impeccable dresser. .

But no matter what we wore, we were headed for bad news. After waiting some five hours inside the presidential palace, we knew the interview request was, well, in trouble. We were permitted to witness a meet and greet with the Bulgarian Prime Minister and a bit of the pomp and circumstance of Kabul in the age of Karzai. Many critics have said that Karzai has been weak and wavering in his leadership. In the last six months in particular the security situation had deteriorated even in Kabul, which had long been considered a zone of stability. The suicide bombings and the attacks on Afghan and coalition convoys had restricted his ability to travel safely.

Then Karzai’s chief of staff, Javed Ludin, came out with an unapologetic grin.

He said that the interview with the president would not be possible today. We asked why and he replied:

“We don’t want to interfere with American domestic politics so close to the midterm elections.”

“What does that mean?” I asked, indignantly.

Ludin was opaque, but what one of his aides informed us was that the situation in the Middle East with the Israeli bombing of Lebanon had infuriated Karzai and that his press handlers were going to shield him from direct criticism of the Bush administration. The aide, who spoke on background, said that US policy in Iraq and in the Israeli-Lebanon conflict had left the region roiling and made it difficult for Karzai in his relations with other Muslim leaders. Afghan reporters said it was more likely that Karzai could feel intense criticism coming from the Western media as the fifth anniversary neared and he wanted to dodge the bullet, so to speak.


On Friday in the Muslim world it is a day of rest.

And that is what we decided to do with the morning. We headed for the Kabul Desert Classic Golf Tournament at a ragged golf course on the edge of Kabul. It is a dirt hillside near a dam where goats graze and dust blows and where the remnants of tripped land mines litter the dust. Just before the entrance is the bombed out remains of an Al Qaeda training camp that was slammed with missiles by the US forces in October of 2001.

This promised to be heavily armed golf, and indeed it was. There were private security firms packing high powered rifles and 9 mm pistols and shouldering golf bags all at the same time. There was even a shooting on the fourth hole, a confusing scene in which shots rang out and then two men drenched in blood ran off. Welcome to the Kabul Classic.

Truthfully, I spent most of the time reporting, not golfing. But I did manage to squeeze in two or three holes. As usual, I failed to par any of them.

The players at the tournament, which was a charity to raise funds for homeless kids in Kabul, were mostly from the NGO crowd, a big acronym here which stands for “non governmental organizations.” They are the small army of people dedicated to carrying out development projects and helping the new Afghan government professionalize its institutions. Among these very knowledgeable folks, there was widespread pessimism.

They all start off saying that there have been very significant gains in Afghanistan – particularly in the construction of roads and schools and in the functioning of the new parliament.

But most of these hard-fought gains are imperiled now as the security situation deteriorates daily, they say.

John Dempsey, a lawyer from Lynn, Mass., who organized the tournament, said he came to serve as an adviser to the Justice Ministry as it tried to implement a new constitution. He said he was returning to the states after three and a half years in Afghanistan and that he left feeling "things are going down hill pretty fast."

"The last six months have been pretty bleak. In Kabul, there have been riots and bombs in what used to be the oasis of stability. Conservative elements are starting to gain more power. There is a bumper crop of opium. Fighting is picking up in the south. Insurgents are gaining a lot of steam with hundreds killed. ... Iraq is just pulling enormous amounts of resources out of here... And all this goes pretty much unreported because of events elsewhere in Iraq and Lebanon," he said.


In the hills of Pol-i-Charki outside of Kabul, there was a live-fire exercise to which we were invited, a kind of dog and pony show to see the Afghan and US forces working together. We obliged. And we actually learned a lot. US Army Major Arnold Strong was our guide and opened up the doors for us to talk with local Afghan soldiers and American troops.

There we were granted an interview with General Karl Eikenberry, who was still sweating in the intense midday heat after running along side troops in part of the exercise. Eikenberry and the other commanding officers we had a chance to speak with all spoke of the successes in Afghanistan in showing a presence in Kunar and Nuristan provinces and in trying to secure the areas so that development projects could move forward.

Their optimism was contagious, but few of them wanted to discuss, or seemed to have the authority to discuss, questions about the failure to find Osama bin Laden five years after 9-11. It seemed a sore spot, and perhaps one that they wanted to avoid as part of a shift in strategy. That new strategy was not to focus on the search for one man or even on the leadership, as the US military had done in the months following 9-11, but to approach the struggle in Afghanistan more broadly as a balance between security and development.

SUNDAY, August 13 – The road to Jalalabad.

We set out from Kabul in the early morning past the stunning beauty of the rivers and waterfalls and dams that run along the roadside as it climbs up into the mountains. This road, which used to be like a bombed out mountain path, was now smoothly paved. Chinese contractors, working on US Agency for International Development funds, were busy on the roadside in the early morning hours. They are contractors who brave the dangers and the heat and carry out the project. Many local Afghan men seemed to stand on the roadside watching them work, a reality of the contracting business here that is harshly criticized by the local Afghan communities.

Nevertheless, the road was smooth and the trip, which used to take seven hours, only took three. As we neared Jalalabad we past the small village where bin Laden used to have a kind of summer house on a lake. He was a well known presence there throughout the 1990s, the locals say. His bodyguards and Al Qaeda troops were constantly surrounding him, but he was a presence. Now it is mostly bombed out and picked through by looters.

In Jalalabad, we went to the Afghan National Army base and met up with the platoon who would accompany us on a drive to Kunar Province along the border with Pakistan.

This was the core of our journey, the place where many U.S., Afghan and Pakistani intelligence and military officials believe bin Laden may be hiding out. We headed out for Kunar, driving in our vehicle, an old but well-maintained Toyota Pathfinder. We were flanked by the Afghan soldiers who traveled in a Ford Ranger with a mounted machine gun. We flew through the narrow, but well paved mountain roads up into the Kunar Province.

We arrived first at Camp Fayez, a forward operating base, or FOB, just on the west side of the Kunar River and there we met up with US Army Staff Sgt. Michael Nye from Northampton,. Mass. and several other soldiers who pointed to the moon that was rising in the sky at dusk. They said that the militants often traveled on moonlit nights and they worried about possible attacks.

We drove over the river on a bridge and we went at high speed as the soldiers warned us that snipers often worked the ridgeline above us. A few miles down the road, we arrived at Camp Joyce and there we bunked down with the Afghan National Army. We were told by the Afghan military that we were the first Western journalists ever to request an embed with the Afghan National Army and that seemed to endear us to them. It had been a long day and we bunked down early, sleeping on military cots that were offered to us by officers who slept on the floor next to us. We insisted on the reverse arrangement, but they insisted that we were guests and so we climbed into the rusting bunks. But within an hour several rockets would rain down on the outposts of Camp Joyce and we would awake to the sound of an old Soviet-era heavy caliber machine gun responding to the militants who had attacked us from the hills that lie along the border of Pakistan. The time we spent with the Afghan army and the US military mentors turned out to be perhaps the most revealing moment about the successes and failures and challenges that lie ahead in Afghanistan in the hunt for bin Laden and in the struggle known in Washington as “the long war.”