Al Qaeda's Great Escape: The Military and the Media on Terror's Trail available in Paperback
Details how Osama bin Laden and other al Qaeda fighters slipped out of Afghanistan during the battles of Tora Bora and Operation Anaconda. The author also charges that Western media outlets, eager to satisfy their audience’s thirst for revenge, lost their grasp on journalistic objectivity while covering bin Laden’s pursuit. Blinding patriotism and reliance on Pentagon press releases led them to portray events not reflecting reality on the ground. He contends that to satisfy the press and the public’s need for vengeance, the Bush administration pushed to achieve early, highly visible successes to the detriment of long-term strategy. Impatience at the top forced a rush into a war aimed primarily at “regime change,” which left the U.S. military largely empty-handed.
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Al Qaeda's Great EscapeThe Military and the Media on Terror's Trail
By Philip Smucker
Potomac BooksCopyright © 2005 Philip Smucker
All right reserved.
Chapter OneBEEN LOADIN' FOR BIN LADEN
Then it was that Alexander's difficulties began. Nor need we wonder, when the historian gravely asserts that "so stupendous is the rock in this land that it was found impregnable even by Heracles, the son of Zeus." -Winston Churchill, The Story of the Malakand Field Force
The hope of good fortune and the hunt for a good story had every brand and variety of reporter descending on the Afghan war zone in the autumn of 2001. Established stars, freelancers, and foreign agents just posing began arriving in droves soon after the September 11 attacks. The Pakistan-Afghan border provided all the palpable doom any of us needed for a sense of adventure. As much as any confused CIA agent in Langley, the foreign press had been stunned by the events of September 11. Ever since, we had been writing about the "intelligence lapse"-without, of course, having to examine the same shortfall in our own ranks. Just as bin Laden and company had blindsided the Pentagon, so the world's press, particularly the American press, had been found napping.
After five- and twelve-hour flights from the homeland, with the hangover and jet lag that followed, we all plunged into a chaotic wilderness of intrigue and spite. If Osama bin Laden had attacked the Pentagon and the World Trade Center to draw the great infidel armies of the world onto his home court, he was about to get just what he was looking for, plus about four thousand entirely unwanted reporters, who didn't play by the rules of any military. It was enough to make even a hardened reporter despair over the future of civilization as we had known it behind our white picket fences, weaned on Superman and Batman comic books. What would happen if the U.S. military came in guns blazing was an entirely unpredictable business, which provided the ingredient that gave this story the greatest buildup of attention I could recall in my decade and a half as a foreign reporter.
No one could predict what kind of reception the Western press corps would get once its members made it into Afghanistan, either. With the approach of "D-day," the expected wild rush through the Khyber Pass to Jalalabad in eastern Afghanistan, and ultimately on to Kabul, I was reminded that I would have at least to attempt to alter my appearance. Blending in and looking as Afghan as possible became the goal of all correspondents. For female journalists it usually meant dying their hair dark and swathing it in a veil. For men, achieving "the look" meant dressing in the pajama-like shalwar kamis and cultivating unwanted, prickly facial hair. I hadn't yet acquired the patience the average Pashtun male took with preening-trimming his beard with metal scissors while holding up tiny Chinese mirrors in teahouses and at bus stops. With my driver's encouragement, I had made several false starts and finally arrived at something resembling a Brillo pad, set awkwardly on my lower jaw. As I passed a final assessment in the bathroom mirror, I judged that I was beginning to look-if not feel-about 30 percent Afghan.
Early on in the conflict, the prospect of getting a scoop inside the closed borders of Afghanistan had compelled some of the less risk-averse correspondents to test their fates in their pursuit of the story. Almost all of them, male and female, had disguised themselves in head-to-toe light blue burqas. No one could see in the crags and cliffs from a face mask that resembled a Catholic priest's confessional grill. A burqa fit so loosely that even the BBC's most senior international correspondent John Simpson, a huge man by any standards, could fit comfortably underneath one for a day. What still poked out at the ground level caused the most problems. Reporters invariably forgot to remove their telltale sweaty sneakers and replace them with an old pair of leather sandals. Captured hacks, in any case, had, thus far, only ended up in a Jalalabad prison, fitfully trying to recite the Koran.
After Simpson's successful day trip, in which he admittedly only put two feet in Taliban territory very briefly, reporters in Peshawar started getting calls from anxious editors. "Why aren't you in there, disguised as a tent?" asked one. "If all six feet two inches and two hundred pounds of John Simpson can get in, surely a woman can." Within days, the Taliban had captured Yvonne Ridley, a British reporter and a single mom who wrote for the tabloid, the Sunday Express. The Taliban information minister quickly accused her of "ill intentions"; her editors, who had approved her trip in advance, shot back that their star reporter was actually a Taliban sympathizer whose nine-year-old daughter, Daisy, really needed her "mummy" home. (Ridley's subsequent conversion to Islam would prove half of their point.) After she was released unharmed after ten days in captivity, Ridley astounded her colleagues at the Khyber border crossing by praising the Taliban for treating her with "respect and courtesy"-this even after they had severely beaten her Afghan student guides.
The Taliban had responded to the border hoppings by putting out a "red alert" along the Pakistani border; their guards kept their heads up for blue-burqa invaders. For the rest of us, it was obligatory to write kind things about these captured journalists, pointing out in our reports that these folks were not, after all, government spies. That was of course true, and besides, there was no need to caste any suspicions on our colleagues once they were in the hands of the Taliban, whose fondness for public executions was infamous. Video footage of executioners shooting a burqa-clad woman in the back of the head in Kabul's football stadium, filmed for the documentary Beneath the Veil, reminded all of us how quickly things could go belly-up in Afghanistan. The stories of the few journalists who had slipped over the border clandestinely had sufficiently deterred future sneak attacks, while the rest of the media patiently waited in Peshawar for a more secure opportunity to travel into Afghanistan.
For five weeks, I lived in "Auntie's" stately guesthouse in University Town on the edge of Peshawar, a city of two million official residents but now teaming with Afghan refugees, just down the road from the Khyber Pass. A warm, diminutive soul, Auntie viewed most of her Western guests as naive children lost in a strange land. She quickly assumed the role of my guardian angel. I found it reassuring to have someone who cared so much if I lived or died, and it meant that much more since I knew Auntie had been hard-pressed of late, making frequent trips to the city jail, where her husband, a political dissident, languished as a "guest" of Gen. Pervez Musharraf, the president of Pakistan. Everything Auntie did seemed all the more selfless and gentle. Her lunches on the lawn and lamb curries beat staying at the posh Pearl Continental Hotel in Peshawar, the preferred two-hundred-dollar-a-night lodging of the network reporters. Jamal, Auntie's lone driver, had already agreed to take me when the moment arrived up to the Khyber Pass, at which point, he insisted, he would be begging off. He told me that to continue my journey across the border I would have to hitch a ride with one or another of the bands of armed men. He could not have been more terrified of the idea of riding into Afghanistan. Jamal was an orphan whom Auntie had trained from an early age to watch out for himself in an unkind world. Now a burly father of three children, he had none of my own fascination with the idea of plunging into a war zone. "Crazy people, crazy people," he would start, shaking his head from side to side when you mentioned Afghanistan. "The Afghans know only, 'kill da infidel, kill da infidel.' That mean, you, Mr. Philip. No. Not me. I no go there."
As the day of my journey into Afghanistan seemed imminent, not only did I feel at a disadvantage for having to hitch a ride from the border, but I felt shorthanded. My usual partner in crime, the brilliant Lutfullah Mashal, was locked in a woodshed somewhere on the outskirts of Kabul, waiting for an invading army to liberate him. Mashal could best be described as the "dream fixer," the best man any foreign reporter could hope to find in a war zone through serendipity or any other means. Fluent in five languages-Farsi, English, Pashto, Urdu, and Arabic-Mashal had provided me with endless grist for my newspaper mill since the day I met him in his home village hard up against the Afghan border. He was both courageous and scholarly. A jocular, chubby thirty-three-year-old with a constant grin, an endearing chuckle, with a voracious appetite for lamb kebabs and news, he had until a year ago run an Internet cafe in the Pakistani tribal areas; it had been shut down by religious zealots. When I met him, he gave me a tour of his home village, explaining that his father had been an Afghan Supreme Court judge under the rule of the exiled King Zahir Shah, years before the Soviet invasion. After a time in jail in the hands of the Communists, his father had fled with the family to Pakistan, where in the absence of formal schools he had personally taught Mashal to write and speak fluent Arabic. The language had been his son's password into the al Qaeda haunts.
For over a month, Mashal had been at my side when he was not making regular "undercover" reporting trips inside Afghanistan, beginning early each week and returning by Thursday in time for my end-of-the-week magazine deadlines. On his own initiative and daring, he had visited three functioning al Qaeda camps, at grave risk to his life. On one occasion, he had watched a three-ring combat training circus of al Qaeda fighters on motorbikes, strapped with TNT, and aiming rockets at imaginary U.S. helicopters. Another time he had landed in a Kabul hotel with a Filipino scientist who had a signed letter from al Qaeda's number two, Dr. Ayman al Zawahiri, authorizing him to help the network develop biological weapons. The man had described his own efforts to develop an "anthrax bomb," a nice "scoop" in itself. In our last meeting three days before my own foray into Afghanistan, I had asked Mashal to cover the fall of Kabul from start to finish and report back to me in Peshawar as soon as he could. As the days passed, I became concerned that he had been taken captive, or worse, strung up for spying. I had already begun to kick myself for sending him off; I had no idea where Mashal was, but I knew I had to find him if I wanted to stay ahead of the competition. The New York Times alone had several dozen reporters on the story. I was working on a lower budget, but I knew that Mashal's talents could put me on equal ground with anyone.
My replacement guide, Karim Abdul, was the best second choice I could have had. The tall, strapping peasant could frighten off most people with a quick glance. I had found him begging for work, any work, outside the UN's refugee center in Peshawar. The lanky, full-bearded Pashtun had fled Jalalabad just two months prior, after the Taliban had raided the British Christian charity he worked for. For him, our race into the fray would be a grand homecoming of sorts. The anticipation in his jet-black eyes was palpable.
Finally, on November 12 and 13, after two months of waiting at the gates of the inferno, the Taliban regime imploded. A government that had ruled Afghanistan with ruthless ineptness for a half-decade had only fringe extremists still on its side. First, the warlords, backed by Green Beret fighters and bomb spotters, had ridden in on horseback and in jeeps to Mazar-I-Sharif in the north. Next, their tanks had rolled into the capital, Kabul. Finally, the manhunt of a lifetime had begun, or so I thought. Al Qaeda and Taliban, who had long vowed to turn their struggle into a guerrilla war, were on the run, retreating into their old Soviet-era mountain redoubts. Somewhere in that mix was bin Laden, and it was anyone's guess if he would stand and fight or flee for his life.
As I prepared to rush into Afghanistan, however, I worried that the real story might rush right past me going the other direction. Panicked Afghans along the border spread stories that al Qaeda was filtering out into Pakistan, just as we were heading into Afghanistan. If Osama and his boys gave all of us the slip just as we were finally getting in, we would all look a little foolish, ending up-as was often par for the course in our profession-in the wrong place at the wrong time.
The fall of Kabul, in itself, gave a strong hint that the floodgates were about to open from eastern Afghanistan on the great highway running into Jalalabad. Among the warlords the attitude had changed, and they were making last-minute preparations for a possible plunge into Afghanistan. We followed suit to the best of our ability. As Jamal, Karim Abdul, and I rushed to pull together a few supplies and ready ourselves for the journey to Afghanistan, Auntie was talking a mile a minute. "Now, remember to drive slowly on those icy roads, and if they start shooting, don't be silly, now," she said, waving her tiny hands in the air and speaking in that South-Asian English that sometimes sounds more like a hen cackling than a human talking. "Just turn back, and I'll have your room waiting for you. Now, here are your ten chicken salad sandwiches with hot peppers-hot peppers just as Jamal likes them. They should last forty-eight hours, but I wouldn't risk anything beyond that-you might poison yourself in this heat." All the coddling, as we prepared to plunge into the unknown, was more than welcome.
We hopped into Jamal's Pajero and set out into Peshawar, racing past rickshaws and horse-drawn carts as we hurried to make the final arrangements. Karim Abdul was snapping his fingers and singing a little ditty, unable to restrain his joy at being on his way to see his mother and four brothers again. His cool, collected demeanor acted to assuage my own fear and uneasiness. Jamal swerved for a man on a bicycle, and as we entered Peshawar's ancient marketplace, we passed by a bookstand selling numerous biographies of Osama bin Laden as well as creeds against the latest "greatest infidel" of all, George W. Bush. Aptly named, Qissa Khwani-the Bazaar of the Storytellers-the market stank of diesel fuel and camel dung. The bustle of travelers and the loose-lipped gossip of what might or might not be going on down the road reminded me that a thousand years earlier caravans had gathered in Qissa Khwani to listen to bards and gossips. All those "authorities of the day" loved to embellish and expand on the truth, creating the very legends that still lived on in the name of the latest and greatest warrior for Islam.
Excerpted from Al Qaeda's Great Escape by Philip Smucker Copyright © 2005 by Philip Smucker. Excerpted by permission.
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