For U.S. Forces, a Secret and Futile Hunt
Local Guides Describe Furtive Trip Into Pakistan in Search of Fugitives
By Peter Baker
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, May 5, 2002; Page A01
KHOST, Afghanistan, May 4 -- The night air was crisp, the horizon pitch black, as eight heavily armed and armored U.S. Special Forces soldiers and their local guides crept up to the small, one-story mud house, pausing about 750 feet away to find cover in ditches or behind rocks or trees.
With black masks pulled over their faces, the Americans trained their night-vision goggles on the house, looking for the targets, the guides recalled. Inside, the Americans had been told, might be Osama bin Laden's top lieutenant and one of the leaders of the fallen Taliban regime. As overhead satellites monitored the area for movement, the Americans sent a pair of Pakistani contacts, wired with special communications equipment, to peek inside. But the team left empty-handed.
Each night for a week the U.S. team came back, sneaking over the border from Afghanistan into the treacherous and largely ungoverned tribal areas of Pakistan as soon as the sun went down to watch and wait until returning to the Afghan side of the border just before dawn, the guides recounted in interviews today. Ultimately, the Americans failed to find either Ayman Zawahiri, the second-ranking leader of al Qaeda, or Jalaluddin Haqqani, the senior Taliban commander from eastern Afghanistan.
But the guides' account of the mission that ended two weeks ago opens a rare window into the secret war being waged on both sides of the border, a war fought through wits and rumor on a battlefield that shifts from one moment to the next. In this cat-and-mouse contest, America's most elite commandos chase whispers of the enemy from one hostile village to another. So far, it seems the hunters have been a step behind their elusive quarry.
"They're always in movement," said Mohammed Mustafa, one of the guides who helped the Americans look for the Taliban and al Qaeda figures in the tribal areas on the Pakistani side of the border last month. "We were very, very sure that the [al Qaeda and Taliban leaders] were there, but I don't know what happened. As soon as we went there, we didn't find anybody."
"They're mobile," said Kamal Khan, a local militia commander who has been working with U.S. forces to search for al Qaeda and Taliban fugitives. "They don't stay in one place. They change their location all the time."
The U.S.-led coalition has recently deployed multiple missions in the hunt for al Qaeda. There was a highly publicized search operation launched by British Royal Marines this week, but there also were smaller raids and reconnaissance missions conducted under the cloak of secrecy. A convoy of CH-47 Chinook helicopters ferried hundreds of Canadian soldiers at daybreak today to mountain peaks in southeastern Afghanistan to begin yet another sweep of possible enemy hide-outs in an action dubbed Operation Torii.
The coalition appears to be building up forces along the border for a broader drive to flush out the hidden Islamic militants with the help of Pakistani troops. The last two nights here in Khost, not far from the Pakistani border, have been filled with the roar of military planes streaking overhead, possibly on surveillance flights. And in recent days, U.S. commanders have asked Afghan allies to provide them with an additional 300 to 400 men to aid the search.
The most intriguing, and delicate, of the current missions are taking place out of sight, across the Pakistani border, where intelligence reports suggest bin Laden and many of his surviving fighters may have fled.
The tip that led to the cross-border incursion last month came from the pair of Pakistanis who work for Mustafa, the security chief in Khost, who pays them 9,000 Pakistani rupees, or $150, a month each to serve as his eyes and ears in the tribal areas. The pair told Mustafa that the targets had taken up residence in a Pakistani village.
Except for bin Laden, there is no one U.S. commanders would like to capture more than Zawahiri -- a founder of Egyptian Islamic Jihad, an extremist group that merged with bin Laden's in 1998 -- who became the second-in-command of the worldwide al Qaeda network. Haqqani, once the de facto ruler of eastern Afghanistan and one of al Qaeda's closest allies, ranks high on the most-wanted list of former Taliban leaders.
As Mustafa and his interpreter, Mohammed Shafiq, recalled in interviews today, they received word of the sighting on April 14 and passed it along to the Americans, who have set up bases at two airfields near Khost. By the next day, U.S. troops were ready to move. They called Mustafa and asked him to come to their base.
In a seven-car convoy the group then set out for the border, heading to a checkpoint manned by Mustafa's men in the village of Worzhannah. Together, they sat on mattresses on the floor and shared dinner; Mustafa's men had slaughtered a sheep for the occasion to go along with the typical Afghan fare of rice, nan bread and tea. Mustafa and Shafiq remembered it as a light-hearted meal.
"They were having fun, they were laughing," Mustafa said of the U.S. soldiers.
© 2002 The Washington Post Company