KUNAR VALLEY, Afghanistan - Nearly seven years after invading Afghanistan to go
after Osama bin Laden, the United States has stepped up its campaign to catch
the al-Qaeda leader and his senior associates, including Ayman al-Zawahiri, who
are believed to be in the rugged terrain spanning Bajaur Agency in Pakistan and
the neighboring Afghan provinces of Kunar and Nooristan.
The US has increased surveillance operations through newly built
bases in the region and additional daily flights of Predator drones scour the
area for any suspicious characters who might lead the US to the world's most
The recent killing of leading al-Qaeda figures Sheikh Abu Soliman and Sheikh
Osman in Damadolah, Bajaur Agency, by US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)
drones was the result of the spy network's stepped-up surveillance in this
vital corridor. (See
Ducking and diving under B-52s Asia Times Online, May 22, 2008, in
which the news of the death of the two men was first reported.)
According to some reports, in the past few days, US security and military
officials held a top-level summit at a military base in the Qatari capital of
Doha to plan an operation to hunt for the al-Qaeda leader. General David
Petraeus, the US commander in Iraq, and the US ambassador to Islamabad, Anne
Petersen, were reported to have attended the summit.
Last week, Petraeus testified before a US Congressional committee about
security in Iraq and warned that members of al-Qaeda based in Pakistan's tribal
areas were planning a new September 11-style attack.
Revelations on the road to Pakistan
I have witnessed how the Taliban rule the Pakistani Mohmand and Bajaur tribal
agencies and the Kunar Valley without any formal government. The Taliban are
undoubtedly the real regional force "which can only be heard but cannot be
seen". The Taliban are more a feeling than a physical presence in these tribal
areas, yet they are a force that can transform society.
Seven months ago I visited Bajaur and Mohmand agencies. As my taxi driver
headed from Peshawar, the capital of North-West Frontier Province, he was
played some Pashtu music on the car's CD. Quickly, though, he changed it for
"The militants have not only brought guns to the tribal areas, they have also
brought a culture which has transformed tribal society," commented a passenger
traveling with me.
This set me thinking. Where are people like Nashanas - a legendary singer? His
songs are only heard in urban centers such as Kabul, Peshawar, Herat, Quetta
and Kandahar. In his place are poetry and songs that talk not of love and
lovers but of a mujahid and his gun - his long hair and beard, his wounds of
war, his passion for resistance and his preference for the battlefield rather
than intimacy with his lover.
This has given rise to a new breed of people who inspire such poetry, such as
Mr S, whom I met this month while returning from Kunar province to Pakistan
after a stay with the Taliban.
"Mr Saleem, you are extremist. Please be moderate," he bluntly told me. The
reasons for calling me an extremist were twofold: my wearing the traditional
warm Pakhol cap in the hot weather, and that I had managed to travel to the
Kunar Valley and back despite being out of condition.
S is 25 and initially seemed like any other foot soldier who had taken his
inspiration from the lectures of a radical cleric. I was very wrong and the
Punjabi with a soft face revealed much humility as I got to know him better on
our hike through the mountains.
S is the son of a Pakistani military officer and left his home after completing
school at the age of 17. Ever since, he has been an active jihadi, and in eight
years he has only seen his family once.
He joined al-Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan before September 11, 2001 -
even serving for bin Laden - but soon after that event he went to the South
Waziristan tribal area in Pakistan with Arab-Afghans such as Sheikh Ahmad Saeed
Khadr and Sheikh Essa.
S said his association with Arab-Afghan militants turned him from an ordinary
jihadi into an astute trainer. "In my early 20s, I was training big names of
this region, including young Arabs and Uzbeks who were many years older than
me," said S.
S could have earned a monthly stipend to devote himself to being a jihad, but
he chose to work as a trader in Pakistani cities to earn extra money. He then
returned to the mountain vastness of Afghanistan to join the Taliban's fight
against NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) in Afghanistan.
A turning point in S's life came when, returning from Khost province in
Afghanistan where he ran a training camp, he was arrested by Pakistani Frontier
"I was passed on from one security agency to another, and each time the
interrogation methods changed. My pre-9/11 association with bin Laden and
Zawahiri and occasional meetings with Zawahiri after 9/11 boosted me as an
'al-Qaeda associate' in the eyes of my Pakistani examiners. For one-and-half
years I did not see a single ray of sunlight. After thorough interrogations,
they concluded that I was just a fighter and a trainer against NATO troops who
happened to be a 'renegade' son of an army officer," said S.
"They contacted my father and despite that he had abandoned me a long time ago,
when he heard about my situation all his fatherly affection returned and he
agreed to become my guarantor that I would not take part in any jihadi
"So I was released in front of Peshawar railway station, blindfolded, and when
my blinds were removed there was my old father in front of me. I was standing
with my hands and feet chained, and when my guards removed these my father
hugged me and wept profusely.
"That was the only brief interaction between me and my family as I once again
went into my own world of jihad. It was me and my gun, and I never looked back
to see if there was any family, a father or a mother, waiting for me ... though
I miss them a lot," S related in a sad, soft voice.
S then went on to tell of his first showdown with American soldiers in Birmal
(near Pakistan's North Waziristan tribal area) in Afghanistan. Some Americans
were killed, but most of S's colleagues were either killed or wounded.
Shattered, S only just managed to make it back to his base.
S has earned a reputation in jihadi circles as a spiritual healer. Whether for
headaches, stomach aches or wounds, his recitation of the Koran has a healing
"What worldly gains do we get in these mountains?" S asks rhetorically. "None!
We have left everything behind ... even this mass of flesh does not belong to
us. Hence we are left with our soul ... which is now very much alive and
awakened," said S.
Later, while walking in the forested mountains of Kunar, I shot a question at
S: "Where is bin Laden?"
"First, you tell me what your guess is," said S with a smile. So I sat down
under a tree, and in the light of the moon I drew a circle in the sand with the
dried branch of tree.
"This is the region of Kunar-Nooristan-Bajaur and Chitral [the region that
spans the Afghan-Pakistani border]. I suppose this is where Osama is supposed
to be ... I have reason to believe he might be in Nooristan, in some deserted
place near the Afghan province of Badakshan," I smiled back at S, giving him a
For a moment S did not speak, he just watched my face; he seemed surprised.
"You have got a good vision of this region at least," S finally commented, then
he stood up and we continued the journey.
"I also have the same region in mind ... though I do not know where exactly he
is," S said, adding that the main concern is that the Americans are also
attracted by this region and are now focussing their efforts on it in their
search for bin Laden.
"If, God forbid, they catch or kill the sheikh [bin Laden] it would cause a
huge loss to the mujahideen. Believe you me, it would be like almost winning
the war. The morale of the mujahideen would be low and all the money pouring in
from the Middle East would stop because it only comes in the sheikh's name," S
"This is a guess according to material knowledge. But I will share with you the
spiritual experience. As you are aware, people in this region take me into
their homes if they suspect someone is haunted by a jinni [supernatural
"Some time ago in this region I was invited to treat such a person [a man]. The
effect of the jinni was removed as I overwhelmed the jinni. It
was in my control [and it later, according to S, embraced Islam] so I asked him
[the jinni] to tell him [the man] the whereabouts of bin Laden. He [the
man] came back after a while and told me he could only travel up as far as the
Kunar Valley before he was stopped by Muslim jinnis who had placed a
heavy guard in the region," S said.
"So even judging by my spiritual experience, you seem to be correct that the
sheikh is somewhere in Nooristan at the crossroads of Kunar and Badakshan,"
Switching topics, S said he is against the use of suicide attacks. "I do not
know the exact status of such attacks in Islamic law, but certainly in my
manuals of war it is prohibited. I have argued with all the top commanders that
any target can be hit without the use of suicide attacks," S said.
On strategic matters, S is clear that attacks on Pakistani security forces in
the tribal areas can only add up to problems. "I always argued with top
ideologues like Sheikh Essa that the more success we get in Afghanistan, the
more we will gain support from Pakistan. If NATO remains strong in Afghanistan,
it will put pressure on Pakistan. If NATO remains weaker in Afghanistan, it
will dare [encourage] Pakistan to support the Taliban, its only real allies in
the region," S said.
Our chat was interrupted by our guide Zubair Mujahid, who directed us not to
speak as a border crossing was near. "We will cross in half an hour and will
reach Pakistani territory at about 3 o'clock in the morning," he said.
"So early ... do you not fear that a group of goons will try to kidnap us for
ransom?" I teased Zubair.
"Goons! Who is a bigger goon than us ... we have left the entire world and the
entire world has abandoned us. Yet we freely challenge the world powers without
any fear ... you think those little robbers who snatch money from people can
dare stand in front of us?" Zubair replied.
In an hour we reached a point in Pakistan from where I could take video footage
of the whole region of Kunar and Bajaur and the mountain belt going towards
Chitral, Nooristan and Tajikistan.
Zubair and S, along with two other fellows, were saying their morning prayers
on a wide stone on the edge of a cliff. The sun was showing its first
struggling signs of rising in the east. I had the strong feeling that the
region is on the threshold of a new culture whose rays are about to spread
beyond war games and war theaters.
Syed Saleem Shahzad is Asia Times Online's Pakistan Bureau Chief. He can
be reached at[email protected]