Afghan role changing, quarry still elusive
Afghan Army Colonel Faiz Muhammed, his hand over his heart, pleaded for information on who had fired rockets on Camp Joyce. These are enemies of our country, he said. They use Islam against us. You should help us so we can build a new country together, our own country. (Gary Knight for the Boston Globe)
Third of three parts.
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.
The 29-year-old infantryman from a National Guard unit out of Gardner, Mass., has grown to mistrust the moonlight, at least here in Afghanistan where it can help guide the way for militants to cross the border and launch attacks.
Later that mid-August night, that's exactly what would happen, and the way the US and Afghan forces here at a forward base known as Camp Joyce responded to a barrage of shoulder-fired rockets revealed much about the failures, the successes, and the challenges that lie ahead in the war in Afghanistan and the hunt for Osama bin Laden.
But the fireworks would come later. For now, Nye simply surveyed this front line in a struggle where both the mission and the enemy can seem as ill-defined as the long shadows at dusk along the spine of the mountain range in the Kunar Province on eastern Afghanistan's border with Pakistan.
The conflict in Afghanistan that began five years ago as a response to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks was initially a massive manhunt for the person who authored them, bin Laden, and a campaign to topple the Taliban government, which offered support to his Al Qaeda organization.
Before the heavy snows came that fall, the Taliban were overthrown, Al Qaeda scattered, and it was only a matter of time, President Bush assured the world, before bin Laden would be brought to justice.
But five years on, the war is far from over. The Taliban are resurgent in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Al Qaeda, or ``The Base," continues to metastasize into lethal cells from London to Lahore. And bin Laden has remained, infuriatingly, out of reach.
Cornered near the Pakistan border at Tora Bora in early December 2001, bin Laden managed to escape into the mountains 60 miles southwest of here, according to knowledgeable US, Afghan, and Pakistani officials. Insufficient US troops on the ground, inadequate real-time intelligence, and a reliance on local Afghan warlords are what those officials believe allowed bin Laden to flee. Those same deficiencies and flawed strategies persist as the hunt continues, they add, particularly in the provinces that straddle the border.
In sum, the Afghan front is at a critical turning point that imperils many of the hard-fought successes of the early phase of the conflict -- and the prospects for snaring bin Laden. Yet the war seems, to many fighting it, to have been obscured by the glare of attention on the conflict in Iraq and undercut by the resources it has sapped from this mission. In what the White House calls the ``long war" against terrorism, it seems almost a sideshow.
Nye -- looking thin and ragged after a recent supply operation in the dangerous Pech Valley -- has his own way to describe it.
``This is the forgotten war," he said. ``Everyone talks about Iraq and forgets about this place, the place our country got attacked from. I just don't get that."
The strategy in Afghanistan has been transformed and, as some see it, downsized. It became less a manhunt and more a fight to secure -- and bring the beginnings of economic development -- to a deeply tribal hinterland in which the Taliban's vision of an Islamic state is still garnering support. US commanders have come to believe this patient, incremental approach is the only way to crack the loyalty among the Pashtun tribesmen bin Laden is presumed to rely upon for sanctuary.
Inside Kabul's Camp Eggers, headquarters of NATO's International Security Assistance Force that officially took over command of security operations in Afghanistan this summer, Mark Laity , a spokesman for ISAF, said, ``You can't do development without security and security won't last without development."
``So we are treading a fine line here," added Laity.
But to other informed observers, the United States and NATO are not so much treading a fine line as they are spinning their wheels.
``We are in danger of losing the war on terror," said Michael Scheuer, who from 1995 to 2004 was the head of and then adviser to a CIA unit devoted to hunting bin Laden.
The bin Laden unit was dismantled this summer, which Scheuer describes as an ``appalling but not surprising example" of the CIA's distraction from its mission in Afghanistan and from the focus on snaring bin Laden. The CIA confirms that the special unit was indeed folded into the agency's larger counter-terrorism mission, but said that the agency has not wavered in its intense search for the spiritual leader and founder of Al Qaeda.
Scheuer contends that important intelligence assets -- specifically spy planes, satellite imagery, and intelligence analysts -- have been shifted away from Afghanistan to Iraq. He also emphasizes that the US military's reluctance to put troops on the ground in Afghanistan has plagued its efforts. There are fewer than 18,000 US troops in Afghanistan compared with 130,000 in Iraq. And he derides Washington's reliance on a conventional military response to a shadowy, trans national enemy that will not be defeated by conventional means.
``Americans have every right to ask how it is possible that we haven't killed or captured bin Laden. They should be questioning why we have almost 10 times the number of troops in Iraq," says Scheuer, who authored a critical book anonymously but went public with his views only after he resigned from the CIA in 2004. ``I can understand if people are mad. They should be."
The camp is set in a valley that rolls up to the rugged peaks of the Kunar Province. Over the summer, the United States, in a modest escalation, concentrated more than 1,000 troops in Kunar and in the neighboring province of Nuristan. Across the mountains, Pakistan vowed to shore up its side of the border with thousands more troops. None can say with any certainty where bin Laden is, but US, Afghan, and Pakistani officials point to why Kunar is a logical place for bin Laden to have sought refuge.
The most obvious is the terrain.
To call these mountains that lead up to the Hindu Kush impenetrable or inhospitable would be a shabby understatement. This is some of the most brutal and deadly terrain on earth. A mountainous barrier of jagged rock that reaches altitudes more than 18,000 feet, the terrain is nearly impossible to navigate, at least without a good donkey, a local guide, and a lot of time. Here, the most technologically advanced military in the world is reduced to resupplying troops by mule. The skeletal remains of empires past -- the hulking frames of Soviet-era tanks and helicopters, as well as the crumbled stone foundations of old British colonial outposts -- still dot the landscape.
Another reason to hunt for bin Laden here is that the mountain regions are ruled by an ancient code known as ``Pashtunwali ," which requires a tribe to protect any God-fearing visitor seeking refuge, a code of honor that experts, including Afsal Khan , a Central Asia analyst on contract with the US State Department, believe bin Laden has exploited. A videotape released in September 2003 showed bin Laden scurrying down a hillside in what looked, to Kahn, like the unique terrain of Kunar.
And so it is that a small group of Afghan and American soldiers has come together at Camp Joyce. Most American soldiers in the province are attached to the 10th Mountain Division or hail from reserve units from California, New York, Massachusetts, and Oregon. A few others are with a special operations force reconnaissance team, a small group of intense commandos sporting long beards to look more like locals. They tend to prowl at night and are rarely seen, even by other soldiers, during the day.
At the camp entrance, in a grouping of mud-brick huts, a battalion from the 201st Division of the Afghan National Army has set up camp. Clad in frayed uniforms and cracked leather tank helmets, they rely on a rusted collection of Soviet-era weapons. They spend much of the time sleeping and huddled around camp fires, eating mutton, and drinking tea. They're paid a pittance (about $85 a month) and their desertion rate runs over 30 percent.
Just up the hill, US Army soldiers, most of whom are reservists assigned as ``mentors" to the fledgling Afghan army, are housed in a few neat rows of ``B-huts," which are pre-fabricated, wooden shacks.
In a separate, smaller compound walled off behind a black, steel gate with a white skull spray painted on it was a cloistered contingent of about a half dozen US special operations forces, commonly referred to as Special Forces. They were largely invisible except for the blue glow of computer screens that could be seen in the trailers they've set up inside.
All are at the ragged edge of the effort to catch bin Laden, and to battle his Taliban allies, though the number specifically dedicated to finding bin Laden, officials on the ground say, is quite small -- no more than a few hundred members of special operations teams, CIA ``contractors," and a new unit of Afghan National Army Special Forces based near Sarkani. In most corners of this camp and other outposts of Afghanistan, it's hard to find soldiers who speak of bin Laden or see his capture as the core of their mission. As Staff Sergeant Nye put it, ``I don't get all wrapped around the axle about bin Laden. It's a war on terrorism, not a war on bin Laden."
But to others it is why they're here.
US Army Staff Sergeant William Grodnick, 47, a New York City police officer, said he was enlisted as a reservist and did a tour in Iraq, but that he volunteered for Afghanistan. He described watching the twin towers fall that morning five years ago and tears welled in his eyes.
``Over here, it's personal," he said. ``Here, I feel like we are going after the guys who did this to our country."
Less than two miles to the east of Sarkani, over ancient smuggling routes, are Pakistan and the remote Dir Province. Although there is an international border that separates them, the Pashtun villages along this border are more loyal to the tribal structure than to the nation states that lie on either side.
On the Pakistan side of the border the hatred and mistrust of America are , if anything, more bitter and intense. Here, as in Afghanistan, the search for bin Laden and his allies relies primarily on informants and local alliances. Both are hard to come by.
New enemies, on the other hand, seem born every day.
In a tiny hamlet here, a story is told and retold of the suffering of a local baker, Shah Mohammed, who was imprisoned in Guantanamo. He has become part of the local lore that shapes the image of America as a brutal empire and fuels the hatred that inspires militants.
A native son of the village, Shah Mohammed, was a handsome, outgoing man when he set off in 2000 for Afghanistan and ended up working in a bakery for the Taliban government. He was caught up in the chaotic aftermath of the collapse of the Taliban in November of 2001, he says, and US forces picked him up near Mazar-e-Sharif . He was hooded, handcuffed, and eventually bundled off to Guantanamo, where, he says, he was stripped, beaten, and tortured. He attempted suicide four times in the year or so he was at Guantanamo, he says.
Eventually, his US captors researched his stated alibis and deemed him no threat. And so he was released, but his mind and spirit were broken, his family says.
In an interview, Mohammed, 26, spoke in disjointed sentences and repeated over and over, ``I am a baker of bread."
His uncle, Han Mohammed, 40, said, ``This is not the same Shah Mohammed that he was before. People are angry. Why did they do this to an innocent man?"
As a small crowd gathered in his tiny grocery store, the uncle fumed, ``Osama [bin Laden] is a hero for Muslims. That is what we believe. . . . America is no hero at all. If America was a hero, it would have helped this man who they harmed."
Just after 10:30 p.m., three rocket-propelled grenades landed in the vicinity of two outposts near Camp Joyce, injuring none but unleashing a swirl of confusion.
Members of the Special Forces unit stationed here emerged from their gated enclave and surmised that the attacks came from a ridgeline just above a nearby village. Such strikes are a weekly phenomenon here, the troops say, and are even more common farther up the Pech Valley.
At Camp Joyce, the Afghan National Army battallion reflexively responded with staccato blasts from a Russian-made, heavy caliber, mounted machine gun. Phosphorous tips on the .50-caliber bullets lit the night sky like sparklers, a pyrotechnic pounding of the rocky hills that echoed in the night.
In the early morning following the attack, the US soldiers identified the attackers only as ``A.C.M." -- short for ``Anti-Coalition Militias" -- a word basket the military uses to label the confusing array of Taliban supporters, Pakistani jihadists, armed tribesmen, loyalists to brutal warlords like Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, and at least some foreign fighters who represent the remnant of Al Qaeda.
Marine Staff Sergeant Charles Kilgore, put it this way, ``I'm just a jarhead, sir, but if you ask me, sir, they're all bad guys. We find 'em, we kill 'em."
At breakfast in a makeshift mess hall, US Army officers grew convinced that the attacks were by fighters who had crossed over the border from Pakistan. Even more obvious to them was the pointlessness of blindly blasting the mountainside.
There had to be a better way. And after several cups of coffee and a first cigarette, US Army Major Fernando Rodriguez, part of a team mentoring the Afghan National Army, had an idea what that might be: He said he intended to go straight into the village and find out what the villagers saw and why rockets were coming from their community.
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``There is information in that village, and the only way to get it is to go there," he said.
While the US forces focused hard, at first, on the manhunt for bin Laden, and then on the war in Iraq, the Taliban quietly regrouped in the same country where it came of age in the mid 1990s: Pakistan.
This summer, with the shift of NATO forces to the south of Afghanistan, the Taliban have launched an offensive on NATO troops in the Helmand province. They have also stepped up attacks on US troops in the eastern provinces such as Kunar, where Taliban forces and Pakistani local militias aligned with them can strike by crossing the border. The resurgence of the Taliban has complicated the hunt for bin Laden and in some ways eroded the gains the US and coalition partners had made in Afghanistan. It has also put a spotlight on Pakistan and its stated commitment to supporting the United States in ``the long war."
The US Ambassador to Pakistan, Ryan Crocker, is one of the more experienced American diplomats in the Muslim world. For him, the terrorism fight didn't begin on Sept. 11, 2001, but goes back at least 25 years, when he was assigned to Lebanon. Framed on his wall is a shredded piece of the blue State Department flag from the 1983 US Embassy bombing in Beirut. As director of governance for the Coalition Provisional Government in Iraq, he was also the first US official to hoist the American flag over a new US embassy in Baghdad after the toppling of Saddam Hussein in 2003.
``There is no question that Iraq has focused attention elsewhere" said Crocker in an interview in Islamabad. ``But this five-year anniversary is a very important one to think about where we are and where we need to go, but also to think about where we could go if we are not careful."
The political landscape in Pakistan is one that would worry any diplomat. Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf holds on to power only tenuously in a country where Islamic extremism has taken deep root over 30 years. Two assassination attempts in December of 2003 drove home this point. ``What we're engaged in here is more complex than only the hunt for bin Laden," said Crocker.
It remains an open question as to whether Musharraf is strong enough politically to weather the storm that would come if Pakistan were to be involved in a US-led mission to capture or kill bin Laden. Former generals and intelligence officers speak freely of his toppling, should that occur.
General Hamid Gul, the former director of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence, or ISI, which is the country's powerful and notorious intelligence agency, has been a fierce critic of Musharraf. Gul said, ``It is convenient for him [ Musharraf] to be relied upon by the US. He is only needed by the US as bin Laden's hunter. If he finds him, he must be thinking, `Who will need me then?' "
Gul responded angrily, but revealingly, when asked about the ambivalence some see in Pakistan about capturing bin Laden.
``Why should we help? What has he [bin Laden] done to Pakistan? Nothing," said Gul.
Major General Shaukat Sultan Khan, spokesman for Musharraf, said Pakistan has provided consistent support to the United States, assigning what he said were 70,000 Pakistani troops to the border region and assisting, he said, in the capture or killing of 700 members of Al Qaeda.
As he spoke, the television in Kahn's office showed images of Israeli air strikes in Lebanon. He grew pensive about the challenges of being a US ally.
``It's very hard to be an ally of the US when it allows Israel to do this or when we see the images of Abu Ghraib or Guantanamo. It's a tightrope walk for Musharraf or any other leader who supports the US."
At Camp Joyce, Major Rodriguez locked down the hatch of a Humvee and headed out to the village from which he believed the attack the night before had come. It was a mission with limited goals, but one that fit neatly within part of the overall strategy in Afghanistan these days -- to sell the idea that the US goal is to secure the region so the Afghan military and police can take over.
The armored Humvees rumbled out of the camp gates and down a freshly paved main road. ``America built this," said Rodriguez, pointing to a billboard along the roadside proclaiming the roadwork project had been funded by the United States. Then the Humvees turned left onto a dirt road that quickly gave way to a rugged mountain pass. ``The land before time," as Rodriguez described it.
The vehicles pounded over fallen rocks and swerved to avoid boulders. A trickle of civilian traffic, mostly beat up minivans and trucks, came over the dramatic folds of the mountains, having just crossed from Pakistan. The villagers here say that bin Laden, the son of a construction magnate, built the rough road when he was in Kunar during the years of insurgency against Soviet occupation.
To Rodriguez, the choice between the American road and the bin Laden road was stark. ``We had roads like this back in the frontier days, and now we got interstates. We got to let these people know they can have that, too," he said.
At the entrance to the village, the major pulled over to a low-slung, mud-brick building where the Afghan National Army had assembled a group of tribal elders. A group of 30 men gathered on rusted bunk beds and listened, but said nothing.
Afghan Army Colonel Faiz Muhammed spoke to the group and held his hand over his heart, pleading for information on who had fired the rockets, ``These are enemies of our country. They use Islam against us. . . . You should help us so we can build a new country together, our own country."
The plea was met with stony faces and uncomfortable silence.
The United States and its allies will have to do more than make speeches if they are to win the hearts and minds of the Afghan people in villages like the one near Sarkani. They will need to show successes, and there are, indeed, some they can point to.
New roads, like the one from Sarkani to Jalalabad, connect regions once completely cut off from one another. Hundreds of new schools dot the countryside and some 2 million girls exercise a right to an education that was denied them by the puritanical Taliban. A democratically elected and functioning government is headed by President Hamid Karzai. And, increasingly, a fledgling Afghan army and police force try to maintain a presence in the remote, tribal regions that have, for centuries, stubbornly resisted centralized authority.
General Karl Eikenberry, commander of US forces in Afghanistan, stood in the hills outside of Kabul still sweating from jogging through the rugged terrain during a live-fire exercise in which US and Afghan forces rehearsed a close air support operation.
``Think where we were five years ago. Bin Laden and Al Qaeda were operating freely. We toppled that group from power, and where we find terrorists, we are going after them," said Eikenberry. ``All I can do is assure the American people we have made extraordinary progress. We're winning, but this war is not yet won."
But these hard-fought gains are imperiled as the security situation deteriorates, according to many of the people who work on aid projects.
This unraveling is in evidence, in a darkly comic way, at the second annual Kabul Desert Classic, a charity golf tournament played on a barren, windswept hill only recently cleared of landmines. Here, teams of aid workers and contractors for the US government gathered for a good cause. Many of the teams had heavily armed bodyguards who walked the course shouldering M-16s.
John Dempsey, a lawyer from Lynn, Mass., who organized the tournament and came to serve as an adviser to the Justice Ministry as it tried to implement a new constitution, said he was returning to the states after three and a half years 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 . . . Fighting is picking up in the south. Insurgents are gaining a lot of steam with hundreds killed," he said. ``And all this goes pretty much unreported because of events elsewhere in Iraq and Lebanon."
The man, Zahr Said, 55, a tribal leader of the village, complained that several families in the village had been subject to arrest and imprisonment on trumped-up charges. He explained that many of these arrests were based on information provided by rival tribes settling past scores. The Afghan and American officers listened and said they would look into the cases.
What Said did not say publicly, but did describe afterward in an interview with the Globe, was that he was one of the men who had been imprisoned. Said said he spent more than one year in a US detention facility at the Bagram Air Base, a fact that the Afghan and US military officials later confirmed. He said he and other inmates were routinely beaten and deprived of sleep and prevented from washing for daily prayer.
After he was released, he said he learned that a rival tribe had fingered him as a local Taliban leader. He said that he was a religious man, but not a member of the Taliban and certainly not a leader. Eventually, the US and Afghan officials investigated his case and found this to be true.
Like the story of the released Guantanamo inmate Shah Mohammed in Pakistan, the story of Said and his family members in Bagram had become part of the narrative of mistrust for America on this side of the border in Afghanistan. ``Yeah, we make mistakes for sure," said Rodriguez. ``But there are always two sides to every story. . . . We have to check out allegations. If we don't, we could be responsible for overlooking a cell leader. All you can do is do your best."
He and his men would leave the village knowing little more about who had attacked them the night before. (A Pashtun translator working for the Globe would enter the village on his own and learn more -- the villagers offered a detailed picture of how a group of men came over from Pakistan in a truck loaded with 15 rocket-propelled grenades and fired eight of them.)
Still, Rodriguez considers the effort at outreach a success of a sort.
``We learned about them, that's important. We listened. When the Taliban was here they had no free will, they couldn't speak up. Here they were encouraged to speak their mind."
As the Humvee rumbled onto the smoothly paved American road, Rodriguez added, ``It's all about trust. . . . That's why we need to show we're here to stay to help these people. We need them to trust us if we are ever going to get that one piece of information that is going to lead to the capture of bin Laden."
Charles M. Sennott can be reached at email@example.com