Ducking and diving under B-52s
KUNAR VALLEY, Afghanistan - When a United States Predator drone launched missiles at a militant hideout in the town of Damadolah in Pakistan's Bajaur Agency last week, it underscored the area's emergence as a crucial battlefield in the Taliban-led insurgency in Afghanistan, and even in the "war on terror".
The tribal area that borders the Afghan provinces of Kunar and Nooristan is said to be the hiding ground of al-Qaeda kingpins Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri and their confidants, and it serves as a vital corridor for the Taliban.
Last week's drone attack was the third of its kind, indicating that US intelligence is closely monitoring the area, acutely aware of its importance. The strike had some success, taking out two senior al-Qaeda leaders - Sheikh Osman, know for his amputated hand, and Sheikh Soliman. However, a famous Taliban commander, Dost Muhammad, escaped unhurt.
The heavyweight al-Qaeda members had traveled to Damadolah to instruct a select group of Taliban leaders in the safe use of satellite telephones.
Sheikh Osman in particular was a big loss. He was wanted by the US for his role in al-Qaeda's global operations as the right-hand man of Dr Junaid al-Jazeri, pin-pointed by Washington as the main engine behind al-Qaeda's strategies in North Africa and Europe. (Two years ago, in another drone attack on Damadolah, Zawahiri apparently narrowly escaped death after leaving a dinner party early.)
There is fierce debate over how the drone was able to target Damadolah. Pakistani opposition parties allege that Islamabad played a key role in providing intelligence. But the issue is not as simple as that, as will emerge.
Unlike in Helmand province, in Kunar the Taliban do not independently run districts. However, among the craggy outcrops and lush green forests, they have established safe havens and also have the support of large sections of the population. This allows the Taliban to maintain an edge against the American forces in the area by launching daily attacks on their bases, as well as those of the Afghan National Army and intelligence centers.
Kunar and Nooristan provinces also serve as the start of a natural route up to the northeastern province of Kapisa, from where, ultimately, the Taliban hope to enter into Kabul.
All regional intelligence agencies are certain that bin Laden and Zawahiri are still in this area. The US considers it pivotal for the success of the "war on terror". The Taliban on the other hand have built all their resources all around this region.
And neither side wants to give up ground.
Deep in the corridor
An arduous overnight trek on foot from Bajaur Agency took us to the Sarkano district of Kunar province. The route followed the Nawa Pass - a tough climb - which has become a daily flashpoint between the Taliban and US forces.
While I was heaving with the effort, my slim Taliban guide glided along effortlessly, despite lugging an AK-47 rifle and ammunition, and much of my baggage.
"To me, this is a journey of a few hours, for you it is an eight-hour journey," said Ibrahim, a resident of Kunar province. He confided later that he had thought that after the first stiff climb my passion to cover Taliban country would have been extinguished. There were indeed moments, on some of the treacherous stony paths where one slip in the moonlight would have sent me tumbling hundreds of meters into a vast valley, that I considered the wisdom of the journey.
"Wake up, a mujahideen center is only 20 minutes away. You can take a rest when we get there," Ibrahim cried as I tried to take a five-minute snooze on some hard rocks. I knew that his 20 minutes was at least one hour for me, and that is how it turned out.
But after hours of walking I was dehydrated, and simply had to stop and refresh myself from a stream running down the side of a mountain.
"Where is this center?" I asked Ibrahim after a while, as all I could see were the outlines of mountains and dense clumps of trees.
"It is five minutes away. Very near," Ibrahim responded. And then I realized the magic of this terrain. Either in daylight or at night, one can suddenly discover a mud house, safely concealed in the shadows of the mountains and the jungle.
We had arrived at a Taliban safe house. A bed of dried grass in a small room with mud walls was more comfortable than any five-star hotel and I slept for three hours until I was awakened by Ibrahim for morning prayers.
As we started a breakfast of dried bread and tea, two Taliban joined us. "Our camp will be joined by several groups and we will carry out an attack tonight," one of them said, without giving details.
"We will place you at a height in a secure place from where you will be able to cover the event," the other man said. Neither gave their names, only saying that they belonged to "Shah Khalid's" camp.
As dawn broke, we resumed our journey.
"Saleem, we have to hurry and pass through this terrain before the sun rises. Once the sun is up, people will spot you as a stranger, and a few houses here have informers for the Americans," Ibrahim chided as I stopped to eat some fruit from a mulberry tree.
"A few days ago, we killed an informer. But there are still many because of poverty. The Americans can easily pay US$1,000 for ordinary information. This is a huge amount of money for them, they can do anything with it," Ibrahim said.
Ibrahim explained that, except for a few villages that are completely in the hands of the Taliban, the Americans try to "buy each and every stone" in Kunar province to inform on the Taliban. This is to be expected, given that Washington believes the sector is home to bin Laden and Zawahiri.
Finally we arrived at our destination, a village in the Sarkano district, and we made our way to the house of Zubair Mujahid, a Taliban spokesman in Kunar.
The first thing I noticed was a big portrait of a black-bearded man, although it was partly covered by curtain.
"He is my elder son, Abdul Rahman," Zubair's elderly father, Enayat, told me.
"He was the pride of the village. He was a Talib. After the US invaded Afghanistan [in 1991], we were approached by the governor of the province through tribal elders that Abdul Rahman should surrender. We were promised that he would not only be pardoned, but that he would be made a commander of the local police setup.
"After a lot of guarantees, we sent him to surrender. He was welcomed by the governor, but American forces then came and he was arrested. Four days later, his dead body was sent to our village. He had been killed through the worst kind of torture. From that day on, this whole village vowed to take up arms to fight against the Americans," Enayat said.
"Every other month we are offered a truce and friendship, but because of Abdul Rahman's death, nobody is ready to believe them [Americans]. Once or twice in a month American special forces come to arrest the youths of the village, but they are clever enough to dodge them each time," Enayat said.
By evening it was clear that the village only comprised elderly women and men, and some children. A few farm workers were the only youths in the area. They were working the main crop of the area - poppy. The village was also full of mulberry trees.
A while later, my contact Zubair arrived and he immediately instructed the farm workers to leave the fields and take up arms in positions in and around the village.
Zubair then turned to me: "I sense some danger, so we will spend the night somewhere else." So we set off again on a short hike over some rough terrain and ended up in another mud house, this one built on a mountain ridge.
Under a sky full of stars and bright moonlight we could hear the occasional noise of B-52 aircraft and drones. We settled down for a short sleep, the most noise now provided by some fidgety donkeys tied near my bed.
We awoke before dawn and found a note left by Zubair, in which he explained that the Taliban had been unable to make an attack during the night, but that they would do so that evening.
General information on attacks is given to the different Taliban groups operating in the region at the eleventh hour. But specifics, such as where and when an attack will occur, are only known by the groups that will take part in the action.
This is what happened on the evening of May 15. Our group of four - now on our way back to Pakistan - had left after saying evening prayers at dusk. As we started the climb up into the mountains, we heard low-flying B-52s nearby. According to the Taliban, such low flights mean bombing operations. Soon there was a constant noise all around us, including that of drones. We took shelter among some trees and large rocks.
"Generally, after such a noise, the helicopters arrive. And if they spot any movement, they launch special forces who have already cordoned off the area," Zubair explained, adding that we had better get moving - and fast.
Zubair's father had given me a walking stick, which proved invaluable in stopping me from sliding around on the rocks. By now the noise of the aircraft and drones was very close. Dogs in the valley were barking incessantly.
Soon the cover of the trees came to an end and we had to stay as high up the mountains as possible. It was tough going. My throat was dry and my muscles ached, but there was no question of stopping. There was a palpable tension created by the noisy monsters in the sky, which now included helicopters.
The tension heightened several notches when gunfire broke out to our north, so close we could see the muzzle flashes as the guns fired.
"This must be an attack in the Karghal area," Zubair surmised. "We will have to make a brief stop at a mujahideen center nearby so I can get information on exactly what is going on. Then we can proceed through the jungles. The jungle is safe. Even if special forces have cordoned off the area, we will have lots of caves to hide in," Zubair said.
Once in the safe house we were fed with water and fresh white butter bread and tea. Zubair used his wireless to get the low-down. The Taliban had attacked from several directions in the Karghal area, as well as in the Nawa Pass near the Pakistan border - the route we had used to enter Afghanistan. We would have to take the long route home.
Zubair quickly realized I was tiring so he hired a donkey for me. But after just a few minutes on the back of the awkward animal, I knew I was likely to fall off the wretched thing and break a bone. It was back to my feet, although the donkey stayed with us just in case I reached a point of exhaustion.
We were now in deep jungle which provided good cover, but the going was rough, especially the thorny bushes that ripped at the clothes and skin.
A climb up a steep cliff towards the top of a mountain marked our return to Pakistani soil, but my relief was short-lived: another firefight had broken out ahead of us, this time between Taliban insurgents and the Afghan army. The drones were also back in force. The poor donkey was frightened out of its wits and began a pitiful bray - a noise as alarming as the guns and drones.
We changed direction and headed for Bajaur Agency, where the drone attack on Damadolah had taken place two days ago. Soon the cool morning breeze welcomed us and the noise of the drones and the guns was left behind.
But while the world had gone silent for me, I could only think of the clamor that will envelop this area in the months ahead as the Taliban and US-led coalition forces fight it out.
NEXT: The Taliban's new generation of command
Syed Saleem Shahzad is Asia Times Online's Pakistan Bureau Chief. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org