First there was an American in the Taliban. Now it turns out that one of the commanders of an Army unit that fought in last week's big battle at Shahikot is half-Afghan.
Lt. Col. Steve Townsend, commanding officer of the 10th Mountain Division's 4th Battalion of the 31st Infantry Regiment, learned only 10 years ago about his Central Asian parentage. Until then, he had believed he was half-Italian, the story he says German authorities told his American parents when they adopted him 11 days after his birth.
Townsend's long-lost Afghan relatives, most of whom now live in Northern Virginia, contacted him in 1996, and they have since grown close. A frequent house guest, he argued long and hard with them for years about whether the United States should intervene in their native land, a step they thought essential.
"My family has felt for years that the United States needed to help in Afghanistan," Townsend recalled Friday as he sat on his cot in a green Army tent here. "I used to argue that there was no compelling interest for the U.S." His perspective changed six months ago: "September 11 provided that compelling interest."
Since then, he noted, parts of his infantry battalion have served in the counteroffensive on terrorism in five countries. First, a unit was sent to provide additional security for the Army weapons depot in Aberdeen, Md. Then some of his troops were posted to two Persian Gulf nations, Kuwait and Qatar. In October, his battalion began flying into Uzbekistan, providing security for the first U.S. military combat deployment to former Soviet territory.
Now, two of his three companies are in Afghanistan. One, Charlie Company, was involved in the first part of the Shahikot battle. The other, Alpha, was out Friday conducting mopping-up operations as the battle waned. With 500 heavily armed men under his command, Townsend, were he an independent entity, would rank as a fairly important warlord on the Afghan scene.
He has wanted to visit Afghanistan since learning of his ethnic heritage, he said. "But I didn't think I'd do it with a rifle in my hand."
Townsend's saga is in some ways reminiscent of Zalmay Khalilzad, the Afghan-born foreign policy expert who became a Pentagon official during the Reagan era and is now the Bush administration's special envoy for Afghanistan.
But Khalilzad's story is the fairly straightfoward matter of a smart immigrant who did well in his adopted country. Townsend's tale is somewhat more tangled -- and he learned of it only recently.
Townsend was born in Scheinfeld, West Germany, the product of a love affair between a young Afghan medical student and a German art student. He was adopted by an American couple -- an Army sergeant stationed in West Germany and his wife -- and grew up on a variety of Army posts. He has enjoyed a fast-paced career in elite Army units, serving with the 82nd Airborne in the 1983 invasion of Grenada and with the 75th Rangers in the 1989 invasion of Panama.
His mother told him when he was quite young that he had been adopted. "As soon as she thought I could understand, she told me," he said. But she also passed along what the German authorities had told her: that his natural father was Italian.
"It wasn't until I was 31 that I found out I wasn't half-Italian," he said, cleaning his 9mm Beretta pistol. He learned his real background when his German relatives contacted him in 1991 and his birth mother, after meeting him, revealed that "your father was a lovely Afghan man I knew at university."
His natural father, who became a doctor, had died years earlier. But he had relatives who had fled Afghanistan -- first for Germany, then for the United States -- in the early 1980s, after the Soviet Union invaded their country.
When he finally met his Afghan relatives in Herndon in 1996, he said, "It was just open arms -- 'my long-lost nephew.' "
The man he now calls uncle, Nasir Shansab, is a writer living in Herndon. Two cousins also live in the Washington area: Yama Shansab is a lawyer in Fairfax, he said, and Horace Shansab is a photographer and film producer. A third cousin, Tamim Shansab, sells cars in New Jersey.
As much as he enjoys talking about his newfound family, Townsend saves particular praise for the people who raised him: "James and Geraldine Townsend made me who I am. I became who I am because of them."