Afghan odyssey: Few roads, many guns
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Compared to the difficulties presented to commanders here, Iraq was a simple war. US troops may never have to navigate this part of Afghanistan, which is already controlled by the alliance of fighting groups that US has pledged to help "free Afghanistan of terrorism." But while bin Laden's family lives in Kandahar, near the desert plains in the south, bin Laden normally lives in mountain camps north of Jalalabad, among bomb-proof caves and other natural defenses.Skip to next paragraph
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At the end of our second day, the convoy drivers again said it was too dangerous to proceed - a steep mountain pass lay before us. We were beat, pounded into submission by 19 hours on a road that offered a bumper-car ride. We didn't argue.
We pulled into a desolate way station, sort of an Afghan truck stop: two mud-and-waddle buildings, no running water, no electricity. One of the television crews had lugged a generator along, and powered it up long enough to transmit some footage. Dust choked my computer as the wind howled, and the sat-phone batteries wore down faster than they should have. As for the map, it was too depressing to see how little another day's effort had achieved. Where was the "15-hour" diplomat?
We slept 10 to a room, on the floor, and we slept soundly. But the drivers were up at 3 a.m., playing loud music and tinkering, and preparing to pray for the first time that day.
Those prayers seemed to have had an unexpected effect on Day 3. In our modern need to press forward and not waste time, we skipped breakfast - settling only for bitter tea.
Inexplicably, after two days of stopping continuously along the road to replenish radiators, fix flats, and countless other reasons, Day 3 was marked by a mercurial change of mindset. No stops for food or even prayers. My demand to stop to write and file was met with indignation all around.
As the Panjshir valley opened up into a yawning, Grand Canyon-like chasm, I thought about another US manhunt, in another forbidden place - Somalia. There American troops made a beach landing in December 1992 to avert a famine. But the peacekeeping mission in Somalia turned into a manhunt for General Mohamed Farah Aidid, the country's strongest warlord.
Intelligence on finding General Aidid was so poor that for two weeks a Delta Force squad in the country even considered the idea that he might be serving them food in the US troop mess tent. Aidid told me later that he had disguised himself as a woman, a doctor, anything but himself, and rode taxis throughout the city of Mogadishu, which American and Pakistani troops were supposedly controlling at the time.
Though Mogadishu is not a large city, that US mission failed with a series of bungled raids and finally the death of 18 American soldiers in October 1993, during the fiercest firefight since Vietnam.
In Afghanistan, bin Laden won't have a large city to hide in, but gathering intelligence on his whereabouts is likely to be even harder. In recent television interviews, former President Clinton stated that he signed an order to kill bin Laden after the August 1998 US Embassy attacks in Africa. His secretary of state then, Madeleine Albright, says that the US was trying to track bin Laden down, but could not acquire the right intelligence.
After three days of traversing the inhospitable terrain of Afghanistan, I'm starting to understand why.