Photo: Orly Azoulay
Orly Azoulay and friends in Afghanistan
Photo: Orly Azoulay

Journey to al-Qaeda land

Yedioth Ahronoth reporter joins American commandos in search for arch-terrorist Bin Laden

A short while before sunrise, a sergeant stands up inside the Bagram Air Base in eastern Afghanistan and reminded his soldiers: If we hit an ambush, we’ll retreat immediately. Return fire only if it’s too late.


Indeed, the persistent manhunt for the world’s top terrorist has claimed the lives of 196 people to this point, and the Americans are undertaking all efforts to ensure the figure doesn’t grow.


I enter the armored vehicle along with two more sergeants. The flak jacket makes breathing harder. Slowly we’re starting to travel through a narrow dirt road, replete with potholes and surrounded by thousands of landmines. This is how another search operation in the hopes of finding a trace of Osama Bin Laden begins.


The troops’ first objective is to capture OBL, one sergeant tells me, “but not only him.” Every Taliban fighter is a target, he says. Any enemy of coalition forces. Any enemy of freedom.


Orly Azoulay with U.S. troops (Photo: Orly Azoulay)


The soldiers are also looking for weapons, he says, and adds the locals know where it’s hidden, “so we need to talk to them.”


The area is filled with landmines, he warns, and says soldiers only walk the marked path. “There are many snipers around,” he says. “If a sniper fires at us, and we see him, we fire back. If we don’t see, we continue on our way without firing back.”


He reminds me there’s a codeword for the operation and instructs me to use it if I use the two-way radio. If the operation will last for more than 24 hours, the codeword will change, he says.


The mortar operator, a 20-year-old female soldier, carefully pulls a pink iPod out of a velvet pouch resting in her camouflage uniform and places the earphones in her ears. She’s standing exposed in the turret, as we travel through the hills, and listens to the music she downloaded the previous night from her laptop, disconnected from the reality around her.


I pinch myself in the leg to make sure I’m in the middle of a military mission and not a movie. Michael Moore would have surely created a parody about this. If this is what an American manhunt for Osama Bin Laden looks like, it’s no wonder he’s been giving them the proverbial finger from his hiding place for four years now.


U.S. army popular in Afghanistan


We cross small villages on the way, as local residents cheer on the column of armored vehicles. As opposed to Iraq, in Afghanistan they like the U.S. Army.


“We provide the locals with a sense of security,” the force’s commander explains to me. “They understand that above all, we are here to help them rebuild their country.”


The commander says troops usually hand out food, and candy to the children. However, due to the Muslim Ramadan fast, soldiers will now be eating in their vehicles as not to offend local sensitivities, he says.


“I told the soldiers to refrain from smoking near residents until the end of Ramadan,” he adds.


A sergeant tells me, with a hint of cynicism, I must want an exclusive interview with Bin Laden. Yes, that’s why I’m here, I quip. But the sergeant isn’t laughing. He’d be willing to do a lot to be the one to bring Bin Laden’s head to America. If he manages to capture the arch-terrorist, he will become the Free World’s hero. And if I get my exclusive interview, I’m set, too.


I ask the sergeant how he explains the fact America has failed to capture Bin Laden in the past four years.


“You want my personal opinion?” he asks. “I think he’s not even in Afghanistan. He ran away a long time ago.”


The sergeant says most Taliban fighters escaped to Pakistan and is willing to bet Bin Laden is there too. “I hope we find it, and I hope it happens soon,” he says.


24-hour manhunt


Immediately following the recent earthquake in Pakistan, rumors circulated that Bin Laden was badly hurt or killed. The quake hit the area where he’s believed to be hiding, between Afghanistan and Pakistan. However, there has been no confirmation, and the U.S. Army continues to turn every stone, anywhere possible.


Thousands of troops are taking part in this manhunt, 24 hours a day. Every day, dozens of patrols head to the Tora Bora mountains in the hopes of finding, if not Bin Laden himself, than at least a lead, or new information about him.


The roads are narrow and difficult to negotiate and the mountains are steep. When the armored vehicles can no longer proceed, the commandos use donkeys, just to make sure they don’t miss a remote cave that hasn’t been searched yet. When necessary, soldiers lower themselves to cliffs from helicopters.


In Afghanistan itself, residents are convinced Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf is the one who prevents a Bin Laden manhunt in his country. In one interview, Musharraf admitted Bin Laden is more popular in Pakistan than the Americans, and made it clear that if he catches the terrorist leader he would raise his people’s ire.


Hiding in a cave? Bin Laden (Photo: AP)


The U.S. Administration tasked the Pakistani military with searching for Bin Laden in Pakistani territory, while the U.S. army is responsible for the mission in Afghanistan.


Troops get intelligence information about Bin Laden every day and check every piece of information, I’m told by a sergeant who has been serving at the base for more than a year now.


“Sometimes it’s good intelligence, sometimes it’s bad intelligence, but the manhunt is the number one objective. Eventually we’ll catch him,” he says.


Building hospitals for locals


Only this week, Michael Scheuer, former chief of the CIA's Bin Laden Unit, said that despite Bin Laden's recent low profile, he has remained powerful and will reappear in public on an audio tape. This will happen if he succeeds in carrying out another attack in the U.S.


Scheuer, who has been following Bin Laden for 20 years, rejected the American intelligence reports claiming that Bin Laden is isolated and has no influence.


Until the main objective is reached, the American forces find comfort in less dramatic achievements. One of the sergeants says that the forces' work in Afghanistan is very important and that he feels he is taking part in the historical move of rehabilitating Afghanistan.


He adds that the Americans have built modern hospitals for the citizens and are helping them construct bridges and roads. The troops are not only there in order to catch Bin Laden but also in a bid to spread liberty, he said.


After hours of patrolling the mountains, we return to the place we left in the morning: The biggest American base in Afghanistan, housing 5,000 troops out of the 20,000 deployed in Afghanistan.


Bagram is like a small town. They have a Subway branch, a Starbucks coffee shop and a huge bazaar opened by the Afghans, in which they offer the troops rugs and silver jewelry set with lapis stones – a souvenir to take home from the war.


'Bin Laden was here'


One of the sergeants invites me to the troops' residence in order to see how eight people crowd in one room with no air conditioning.


He says that it's no big deal for him to be there, mentioning his wife and 3-year-old daughter, whom he will only see in half a year. He then picks up his guitar and starts singing a duet of country songs with his roommate. They miss their home.


The following day, I leave in a private car to the Tora Bora area. The local residents point to a clay house leading into a cave. They’re willing to swear that once, before the U.S. Army launched the great manhunt, Bin Laden had lived there with 10 of his bodyguards. The tightening noose caused him to flee.


He’s no longer in Tora Bora, the locals say, because now he can hide in Pakistan as President Musharraf will make little effort to find him.


Four years ago President Bush promised to catch Bin Laden, alive or dead, by Christmas. Since then, the Americans have already decorated their Christmas trees four times – and the end is nowhere to be seen.


פרסום ראשון: 10.12.05, 13:24
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