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Tea with one lump, three agents, and a job offer

By Philip SmuckerSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / January 31, 2002


Inside the dimly lit tent, the three US intelligence officials made it abundantly clear they didn't want the ensuing discussion to go beyond the gray canvas flaps. One of the men ran his index finger across his throat to make the point that there could be retribution if the secret got out.

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"Let's be clear from the start, none of this goes beyond our base," he told Lutfullah Mashal, who has been my interpreter, colleague, and loyal confidante for the past five months while I've reported from both Afghanistan and Pakistan. Mr. Mashal is an Afghan, an intrepid reporter who formerly worked for the Kabul Times. He has penetrated no fewer than three Al Qaeda bases in recent months and put his life on the line for news stories on several occasions.

Mashal says he was quite surprised when, a day earlier, several American men in dark glasses and plain clothes, whom he met while translating the complaints of a Pathan tribal elder as a special favor, invited him to tea.

American military and civilian intelligence officers are keen to find a few good Afghans to help them in their hunt for Al Qaeda, and Mashal - fluent in English, Farsi, Pashto, and Arabic - must have seemed like a good fit.

As the job interview continued, the US intelligence officials explained that it had been extremely difficult for them to find good English-to-Pashto and Pashto-to-English translators. "We ask people to 'please go up that mountain', and they translate it, 'please go climb a mountain,' " complained one official.

In eastern Afghanistan, as elsewhere in the country, there are plenty of Afghans anxious to work closely with the American military - even with the CIA. For some, the lure is pure patriotism, others are drawn by rumors of big paychecks.

Take Mohamad Anwar, who works in the Khost government's "military commission," which deals with intelligence matters on a local level in eastern Afghanistan. He accosted a Western reporter recently with the following request: "Can you give me a letter of recommendation for the American equivalent of the ISI?" he asked. The ISI is Pakistan's powerful intelligence service, which worked closely with the CIA in Afghanistan during the Soviet occupation.

Mr. Anwar has kept copious notes about the movements and activities of the Al Qaeda organization - long before the US military arrived here. He knows interesting details like which doctors in town treated senior Al Qaeda members for illnesses and which "safe houses" were used to spirit members to safety in Pakistan.

But Anwar also feels that his own military associates don't pay enough attention to the information he is gathering, and he believes it can - possibly - be more helpful to the CIA than it is to local warlords.

Though the US military and the CIA have remained highly secretive about their operations in Afghanistan, several events in the Khost area suggest that the CIA is working closely with US special forces on the ground. On Jan. 4, when the first US soldier was killed by "unfriendly fire," a CIA officer who accompanied him also suffered unspecified injuries, according to the Pentagon.

The team, also accompanied by about 30 armed Afghans, had gone to view a mosque that had been bombed by a US plane at the end of the Muslim month of Ramadan. It was a risky venture. Next to the mosque, villagers had built a memorial to the 63 "victims," half of whom were Arab nationals, according to Afghan military sources.

In mid-January, several American men in civilian clothes were seen arriving at the Khost airport. In addition to rooting out Al Qaeda members on the ground, US officers are keen to gather as much intelligence as possible about the former activities of the terrorist network. Several US officers visited a chemical weapons facility in Khost last week, according to Afghans who led them there. One of the Afghans, the town security chief, said the US officers provided him with an envelope that contained 10 crisp $100 bills.