Afghan odyssey: Few roads, many guns

At dawn, four days ago, the soaring, serrated mountain ramparts of northern Afghanistan looked picturesque and alluring.

Given the choice between driving or being stuck in Feyzabad, waiting in a queue of nearly 300 other journalists trying to get on one of the Northern Alliance's rickety helicopters, I opted for the overland journey.

"Nothing could be easier," an Afghan diplomat in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, had assured us. I loaded my gear aboard a five-car convoy of journalists for what was supposed to be a 15-hour trip to the Panjshir Valley, to the front line of the anti-Taliban forces.

The first sign that our little road trip would turn into an arduous 47-hour lesson in the brutality of Afghan topography came later that first morning. The crankshaft broke in one of the decrepit Soviet-made jeeps. In fact, our odyssey quickly became a metaphor for how the gap between naive expectations and harsh reality has defeated every foreign invader to enter this Central Asian plateau in the past few centuries.

I couldn't help thinking that despite a decade of deployments from the Gulf War to Kosovo, American forces have seen nothing like this. Two decades of war in this unforgiving terrain have bred a warrior's swagger, and a contempt for fear and death.

On our shortwave radios, we heard Mullah Mohammad Omar, the leader of the radical Islamic Taliban militia, throwing down the gauntlet on Monday during an interview on Taliban-run Radio Kabul: "Americans don't have the courage to come here," he said. The reclusive Taliban chief, whose troops control 90 percent of the country and consider Osama bin Laden one of their "guests," urged Americans to "think again and again" about attacking Afghanistan.

Just before our first breakdown, I saw yet another reminder of the lesson of past failures. A powerful anti-tank rocket had been fired at a pale slab of limestone by the road. The only impact it left behind was a small starburst of cracks, a few inches long. Nothing else.

For four hours, we waited in the remote village of Iskan as a bevy of Afghan mechanics and drivers disassembled the crankshaft, dipping their hands deep into axle grease, and laying parts on sackcloth as wind coated them with dust.

For lunch, our small party of anxious journalists was ushered into a courtyard packed with donkeys, manure, and a huge, bushy clump of marijuana plants. In a dirt-walled room, we sat down on a semi-soiled carpet to a meal of rice, meat, and powerful raw onions. Turbaned gunmen sat at the door, watching, sipping their tea - kind faces craggy with a generation of sun, hardship, and war. Curious children leaned into the only window, to catch a glimpse, until shooed away.

Nearly everyone knows that the "Americans are coming." But for some, the steep hills of this village seem to have blocked out the reason why. Asked whether he had heard of the suicide hijackings that destroyed the World Trade Center towers and hit the Pentagon, one man, Fahim, in a green turban, replied with a puzzled look, as if I had asked how his astronaut training was going: "New York? Washington?"

At least in the Balkans, during US deployments in Bosnia and Kosovo, there was an infrastructure. The winters there are hard, but the terrain relatively easy, with rolling hills and even road signs. Broken bridges were easily repaired with moveable units.

In Afghanistan, most roads are single track, and as we crept carefully along with a refurbished crankshaft (only one part left over), it became clear that this was no place to squeeze an American Humvee. Asphalt is a historical memory for all but a few urban dwellers. Every movement through inches-deep, talcum-powder fine dust stirs up clouds that seep into high-tech computers and satellite phones, and eat away at engines.

The sun set over the mountain crags like a gold doubloon, and darkness closed in. Our drivers wanted to stop. But after 15 hours on the road, our maps showed that we had hardly begun our journey. "Let's keep going," we urged our drivers. "No," they said, "too dangerous at night." But after a roadside meal of rice and onion, lit by a weak paraffin lamp, we climbed back into our vehicles.

But the drivers were right. We moved slowly along the road, but a rock wall on the left side for miles kept us precariously close to the sheer drop on the right, hundreds of yards down to the river. Near the crest of the first of many steep hills toward the mountain pass, the first jeep's wheels whistled, boulders flew, and the rear tires dug into a hole at the edge of the black abyss.

The drivers took an "I told you so" attitude, as we all climbed out, moving rocks by moonlight to fill gaps in the edge of the road. Finally the car was free, and the others followed. Five times that night we had to leave the cars and walk first to the crest of hills, rebuilding parts of the road - the last after the moon set.

Had US troops in Bosnia ever faced such dangerous roads? As I clung to one rock and surveyed the moonlit vastness beyond, I also thought about the manhunt mission. Hadn't indicted Bosnian Serb war criminals Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic evaded capture for years, in the ethnic Serb half of Bosnia? Aren't they still at large in a place far smaller than Afghanistan, where US troops and a NATO force are in control?

Exhausted, we finally stopped and laid our sleeping bags down in the dusty road. Four hours later, dawn broke into a perfect blue sky, and our convoy rumbled to life. Before long, we were facing another hazard.

The turbulent, cobalt blue rivers lend a high-altitude Shangri-La feel of a Himalayan paradise. But the poetry fades when you try to cross them. Rounding a corner, we came across a truck contracted to the Red Cross, whose rear axles had fallen through a log-and-plank bridge, effectively blocking it. Men strained at a block-and-tackle attached to a rock wall. For days, they told us, they had been trying to raise the truck with stones and wood levers.

The load of cooking oil and food aid from Kabul was piled beside the road, tended by men wearing all manner of camouflage. Our convoy turned down to the waters' edge, and managed to cross at an old ford in the river, though the chilly water rose to the floorboards.

An hour later, we arrived at another collapsed bridge. It had been replaced with a narrower one, too small for most trucks. Our old Soviet four-wheel-drives had two inches to spare on each side, driving over rough planks with protruding nails, and stones placed on logs.

How different this was from the 1991 Gulf War battlefields, I thought, in which half a million US soldiers combined with a broad coalition pushed back the August 1990 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. It was a set-piece battle on a desert as flat as a feudal game board. Classic strategy and tactics applied. The biggest problems were extreme heat and ubiquitous sand. But going after Saddam Hussein was not a declared mission.

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.

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.

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