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Soldiers on the hunt where terror hides

In Afghanistan near the Pakistan border, U.S. troops are targeted by the prey they seek.

By CHUCK MURPHY, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published April 21, 2003


ORGUN-E VALLEY, Afghanistan -- The mission was simple: Drive through this valley and stop any black Toyota pickups bumping along the dirt roads. Search them for rockets and grenades.

But for two hours, nothing happened. No trucks. No al-Qaida. No Taliban.

Then, just as night was falling, Army Spc. Robert Ruiz leaned into the Humvee from his position in the turret.

"Rockets," he said calmly.

The Humvee's radio sprang to life. Sgt. Gabriel Mata jumped out to confer with the others in the two-truck convoy. Working from the point of the muffled explosions, they tried to trace the rockets' path back to the launch site. They quickly came to an educated guess.
[Times photo: Chuck Murphy]
Intelligence officers write reports on laptop computers at the Joint Operations Center at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan.

They came from the mountains. They always come from the mountains. That's where al-Qaida is.

On the surface, the hunt for Osama bin Laden and his followers is like this every day. Go cave to cave, village to village. Talk to a few Afghans. Make a few new friends. Try to find the rockets and other weapons before they find you.
campillo
[Times photo: Chuck Murphy]
The rockets "always miss," says Capt. Lucien Campillo, a graduate of Tampa's Jesuit High School. "Then they try again."
Partly as a result of that work, U.S. troops have made inroads. They have arrested or killed hundreds of lower level al-Qaida members and gathered intelligence. They have uncovered weapons and started to help build an Afghan army.

But they haven't found bin Laden.

"If he is alive, I don't know where he is. But if I did know, you can count on me being there rather quickly," said Lt. Gen. Dan K. McNeill, commander of the 11,500 coalition forces in Afghanistan. "If he is dead, I know exactly where he is. He's burning in the fires of hell."

When will he and the rest of the world know?

"We're closer today than we were yesterday," said McNeill, 56, a taut, thin paratrooper who is known for leading his troops on practice jumps. "But not as close as we will be tomorrow."

Mud huts, satellite dishes

It is the nerve center of the international hunt for the people responsible for the Sept. 11 attacks. But the Joint Operations Center at Bagram Air Base is surprisingly silent.

There are no radio signals crackling in the background. No Mission Control-style projection screens for all the 50 or so soldiers and experts to see.

Instead, there is the steady clicking of fingers on laptop computers.

"There is a lot going on, but it's quiet," said Col. Roger King, chief spokesman for the coalition troops in Afghanistan. "It's like a duck. He's quiet on the surface, but he's paddling like mad underneath."

U.S. troops have brought much of the world's most advanced technology to one of the most backward places on Earth. On a base surrounded by mud huts and squalor, satellite dishes on mobile trucks dot the landscape.

In the command center, every element of every group involved in the hunt is plugged into secure Internet sites -- part of what the Army calls the most technologically advanced battle in U.S. history.

Each Web site has a home page featuring everything from the latest information from Special Forces soldiers and intelligence officials in the field to live video feeds from unmanned surveillance aircraft in the skies above the Pakistan border or elsewhere.

Every 12 hours, everyone here logs onto a designated Web site. They are joined by representatives of the U.S. embassies in Islamabad, Pakistan, and Kabul. Someone from Central Command at Tampa's MacDill Air Force Base is likely to listen and look, as are experts at the Pentagon, CIA and elsewhere.

There they find the latest briefing packages. They can plug into their laptops with headsets and talk, or they can exchange information in chat rooms.

McNeill oversees it all, and can direct the discussion when he chooses.

"This is pretty well cutting edge," King said. "Nobody had really done anything like this until we did."

But for all the technology, knowing where to find weapons or leaders of al-Qaida and the Taliban comes down to intelligence gathering in the field. Whether it comes through talking to people, intercepting phone or radio calls or watching from spy planes and satellites, the U.S. Army runs on information.

The general who preceded McNeill estimated that 50 percent of the intelligence that went into the planning of Operation Anaconda, the massive operation against al-Qaida and the Taliban in March 2002, was faulty.

Much of that information was provided by Afghans, and because of the inaccuracies, the battle was far tougher than anticipated. Seven U.S. soldiers were killed in intense fire. Twenty-three were injured.

"Since my headquarters has been in charge of this fight, and that is late May (2002), we have worked harder to generate intelligence that was corroborated by a number of sources," said McNeill, who emphasized that he wasn't criticizing his predecessor, Maj. Gen. Franklin Hagenback of the 10th Mountain Division. "It occurs to us that it is a common practice within this culture and society to be duplicitous."

Poppies to weapons

Lots of people in the Orgun-E Valley remember the day when Ayman al-Zawahiri, a top bin Laden deputy, came to town.

He was tall and surrounded by others. Then he departed.

It was October 2001. U.S. planes had just begun what would become a brief, but relentless, attack on the Taliban and al-Qaida. Within five months, the real combat was over and the guerrilla skirmishes that continue today had begun.

That's when al-Zawahiri was seen here. And that's about the time bin Laden also disappeared from view.

Officially, the Pakistani government has declared repeatedly that bin Laden and his followers can't be in their country. If they were, they would be found, goes the statement.

Sher Laah said he believes otherwise.

Laah is a member of his village shura, the equivalent of a city council. He knows everyone near Urgun and says he gets regular reports on the movements of al-Qaida.

"They are all over in Pakistan now. Especially in the boundary area," Laah said. "The information we are getting is that Taliban and al-Qaida are getting back together and growing poppies again."

Poppies become heroin, which buys weapons from the open bazaars along the border.

McNeill said he didn't doubt that poppy fields were being restarted in the border areas, or that weapons were being purchased with money produced by heroin. He said Afghan President Hamid Karzai has challenged the governors in all Afghanistan provinces to change it.

"Mr. Karzai charged the governors to -- and these are not his words but this is the American slang translation -- to get up off your duffs and do something about this," McNeill said. "The fact that we have scarce resources is no excuse."

But Afghanistan is not an island. Much of the problem is clearly coming from Pakistan. So have McNeill or anyone else had a similar conversation with Pakistani officials, warning them to "get off their duffs and do something about it"?

"Perhaps that's true," McNeill said, declining to elaborate.

McNeill has been trying for more than a month to arrange a joint mission along the Afghanistan border. Coalition troops would work the west side while Pakistani soldiers worked the east. In theory, that would trap al-Qaida terrorists who operate in the mountainous, lawless area between the two nations, where the disputed border area is 15 miles wide in some spots.

But McNeill hasn't been able to get Pakistan on board -- yet.

"We thought we were close to having one that would be ongoing right now, but the Pakistanis pushed it a little further to the right (delayed it)," McNeill said. "We'll see in the coming days."

While Pakistan authorities have arrested more than 400 wanted terrorists, including al-Qaida planner Khalid Sheik Mohammed, McNeill would like greater cooperation.

"The numbers make it obvious: The government of Pakistan is a significant contributor to the global war on terrorism," McNeill said. "My belief is they could do more. More soldiers in the field, particularly in their western province."

'They always miss'

Pakistani officials may deny it, but U.S. troops in the Orgun-E Valley know precisely where some al-Qaida members are and where they are aiming -- at them.

A letter was posted on the door of the mosque in Urgun warning that any Muslims who helped the United States would be condemned to hell. Others have circulated promising $25,000 for a dead American -- and $16,000 for any dead Afghan who helped the Army.

Then there are the rockets.

They are almost always 107mm Soviet- or Chinese-made rockets. Many of them are left over from the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s. Others are newly purchased, probably at bazaars in Pakistan.

They are made to be fired from mobile launching platforms in a barrage. But al-Qaida has no platforms.

So they are leaned against rocks in the hills, wired to 9-volt batteries and alarm clocks. When the clocks go off, enough electricity is produced to light a fuse and away the rocket goes.

On the night Spc. Ruiz spotted the pair of rockets flying parallel to the small base in the Orgun-E Valley, they missed by a half-mile.

Still, the base was on high alert. Everyone, including the cooks, was on the perimeter with rifles or positioned by the mortars. The fear is that al-Qaida will use one of the frequent rocket attacks as cover, then make a run at the base. It would be suicide, but everyone knows suicide is not beyond al-Qaida.

"They always miss," said Capt. Lucien Campillo, a 1988 graduate of Tampa's Jesuit High School, who is in charge of the base. "Then they try again."

Usually the rocket attacks come on Thursday nights in the Orgun-E Valley. Friday is a day off in Afghanistan, so the U.S. troops refer to the bad guys in the hills as the "al-Qaida National Guard" -- they only work weekends. In truth, the rockets could be fired by any number of groups, including al-Qaida, the Taliban or warlords.

More than 1,000 rockets have been fired at U.S. troops on nights just like that one in Orgun-E. Campillo and 1st Sgt. Ed DeLeon keep a rocket garden near one of the tents. In it are the remnants of attacks gone awry.

Each time one of the rockets strikes, it creates a crater about 3 feet around. It leaves behind a metal casing, peeled back like a banana when the warhead detonates on the 4-foot-long rocket.

If they hit their mark, everyone within about 75 feet could be hurt or killed. But it's tough to hit a postage stamp from 2 miles away, and that's what al-Qaida is trying to do.

Sometimes they do hit the mark, of course. A Special Forces soldier and an airman were ambushed and killed nearly a month ago as they returned from a meeting with locals near Kandahar. A patrol south of Orgun-E was jumped by al-Qaida on March 24. A Humvee was blasted by a rocket-propelled grenade, but none of the U.S. troops was injured.

An increasing amount of the day-to-day battle is being undertaken by Afghan militia forces -- remnants of rebel troops who are now employed by governors in the provinces. The Afghan National Army now has about 3,500 troops on the way toward a goal of 10,000 by next summer, when general elections are scheduled.

Most people in Afghanistan believe 99 percent of their population is interested only in peace. But the remaining 240,000 in that 1 percent are certainly creating havoc.

Back in Bagram, McNeill's days are filled with meetings -- with Afghan government officials, visiting generals, reporters and locals.

And twice a day, with his intelligence briefers who tell him the latest on the movements of al-Qaida.

He knows that one day he will be rotated out of Afghanistan. On Sept. 11, 2001, he was jumping out of an airplane near Fort Bragg, N.C. When he landed, he sped back to his office at the fort. He hoped there might come a day when he was in charge of the hunt.

Now, when he thinks of leaving, he thinks of bringing something home from Afghanistan.

"There are some of them indeed I would truly like to bag," McNeill said. "But I'm happy just to bag terrorists, period."

-- Times staff writer Chuck Murphy was with U.S. troops in Afghanistan. For more reports and photos, his online journal is available on www.sptimes.com/reports.

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