The CIA station chief in Islamabad works with the Pakistanis to reinforce their border with Tora Bora, where Osama bin Laden is believed to be hiding. From “88 Days to Kandahar: A CIA Diary”

November 28, 2001

The thin white contrails of an American B-52 bomber might otherwise have looked reassuring, arching in stark relief against an impossibly blue sky and tracing a path, no doubt, to Taliban or al-Qa’ida targets to the north and west. But viewed where we were at the Peiwar Kotal border post, in the shadow of the Safed Koh Mountains just south of Osama bin Laden’s sanctuary at Tora Bora, those contrails seemed menacing and unpredictable. We were standing before a half-demolished rough stone building with a mixed group of Frontier Corpsmen and tribal Khassadars, local police working under the authority of the Pakistani political agent. They pointed toward a pile of rocks and rubble several hundred meters up the road which had been the Taliban border post just seventy-two hours before. When the first American bombs started falling in the middle of the night, they said, no one had been much concerned: they had heard about the amazing accuracy of the U.S. airstrikes. The building where we were standing, one of three at the Pakistani post, would normally have housed a squad of sleeping Khassadars; as luck would have it, it was empty when the errant bomb struck. They were quite amiable about the whole thing. “No harm, no foul,” they seemed to say. Just then, an older Khassadar with a deeply lined face approached me with a shy smile. He meekly handed me a large, jagged piece of shrapnel, as though returning something I had misplaced.

By the last week in November, I was seeing reports from Afghanistan indicating that a significant number of bin Laden’s Arabs had sought refuge on the high slopes of the Spin Ghar, or White Mountains—what the Pakistanis called the Safed Koh—just south of Jalalabad, in eastern Afghanistan. The sharp peaks of the Safed Koh run along a straight east-west axis, defining a portion of the Durand Line, the frontier between Afghanistan and Pakistan. The region of steep mountainsides and deep, plunging ravines on the northern, Afghan side of the peaks is called Tora Bora. It should not have been at all surprising that bin Laden and his men would seek refuge there: he was intimately familiar with the area, having operated from that place during the days of the anti-Soviet jihad. Comprising some of the most difficult terrain in all of Afghanistan, riddled with caves and tunnels where men and supplies can easily be hidden, it is one of the most ideal places imaginable for a beleaguered force to defend itself from ground attack.

“In many of the tribal agencies, virtually every boy above the age of twelve carries a rifle.”

It was also clear that if al-Qa’ida fighters were trapped and pursued in that area, their most likely avenues of escape would run southward, through the high passes of the Safed Koh, into the Pakistani Tribal Areas just beyond. I met with General Jafar on November 23 to inquire what could be done to interdict them if they tried. The tribal regions, formally called the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, or FATA, had been established during the 19th century as a buffer zone along the wild, hostile northwestern frontier of what was then British India. Divided administratively into tribal agencies, each was presided over by an appointed “Political Agent” who combined executive, legislative, and judicial responsibilities in one person, but who exercised his authorities strictly in accordance with local tribal norms and customs, referred to collectively as Pushtunwali. The provincial laws of the “settled areas” did not apply in these frontier badlands. After the creation of an independent Pakistan in 1947, the Pakistanis had maintained the same system virtually without change.

Security in the Tribal Areas was maintained by organized paramilitary units raised from the local tribes, but led by officers of the regular Pakistan Army. The most famous such unit was and is the Khyber Rifles. These units are referred to collectively as the Frontier Corps. The role of the Frontier Corps is to maintain rough order, mediating disputes among the tribes, and upholding the carefully exercised authority of the political agents. The tribes are highly suspicious of the federal government, and jealously guard their independence. For the political agents, manipulation of tribal rivalries is at least as important as the threat of armed force in maintaining order and a rough equilibrium. In effect, the tribal agencies exist in a permanent state of armed truce, with the federal government of Pakistan treading carefully lest the tribes of a given area unite against it, forcing them to intervene with conventional forces in a fight in which fierce local militias hold important advantages. In many of the tribal agencies, virtually every boy above the age of twelve carries a rifle.

Aware of the tenuous state of security in the Tribal Areas and the limitations of the Frontier Corps, I was very concerned about what might happen if significant numbers of heavily armed Arabs came tumbling down from the high passes of the Safed Koh into Pakistan’s remote Kurram Agency, particularly as they were likely to find considerable sympathy among the local population. In these circumstances, it seemed to me, the best we could expect from the Frontier Corps was some sort of trip wire, and I had no idea whether they were postured even to do that. Would it be possible, I asked Jafar, to organize some sort of rapid-reaction border control force to deal with what threatened to become a serious emergency?

Jafar shared my concern at the prospect of seeing hundreds of Arabs, possibly including bin Laden himself, successfully escape into Pakistan. Under his leadership, ISI had been working with us hand-in-glove for two months to dismantle systematically the extensive support infrastructure that al-Qa’ida had built up in the settled areas. Sensitive about his country’s reputation, he was very much alive to the negative PR consequences for Pakistan if al-Qa’ida were to elude justice by gaining sanctuary there.

“Let’s make an inspection,” he suggested, “and see what can be done.” I didn’t need any coaxing. It was the one way we could see for ourselves the state of Pakistani border controls south of Tora Bora and make specific recommendations to strengthen them.

We set out early on November 28 in a Pak Army four-wheel-drive vehicle, with a driver and an orderly, soon joined by an armed escort. Jafar insisted that I travel in Pakistani dress, so as to keep a low profile. Normally when Westerners are called upon to don ill-fitting folkloric clothing, they come away looking ridiculous, like Halloween refugees from a yard sale. I was having none of that. The best rule, it is said, is never—ever—to wear native dress. But if I were going to break that rule, I was at least going to be respectably kitted out, with a properly fitted shalwar khameez and a high-necked waistcoat. The one thing I neglected to bring was a proper winter-weight coat. Fortunately, Jafar anticipated the need, and covered for my oversight with a heavy parka.

We raced westward along the flat tableland of the Potwar Plateau, then plunged downward into the Indus River Valley. We crossed by the ancient bridge just below the brooding Attock Fort, where Alexander the Great had forded the Indus to mount his invasion of India. From there the landscape became much more variable, as we cut through narrow passes in a series of sharp ridges interspersed between broad dry watercourses. We stopped briefly at Kohat, an army town and home to Pakistan’s Ninth Division. From there, we continued onward through Hangu, marveling at the narrow-gauge railway constructed by the British to carry supplies through the difficult terrain to their distant outpost at Thall, located at the eastern edge of the border between the Kurram Agency to the north and the North Waziristan Agency to the south. There we paid a short call on the commander of the Thall detachment of the Frontier Force Regiment, the only unit of the regular Pak Army in the area. I listened very closely to his briefing on available forces, anticipating that if we were to get agreement on a Pak Army deployment to interdict the southern passes leading from Tora Bora, the troops might well have to come from here.

Rushing onward, we were met by a small detachment of the Thall Scouts, the Frontier Corps unit charged with security in southern Kurram, who escorted us to their headquarters and another briefing by their commander. All this gave us some context on overall security conditions and the state of Pakistani forces in the wider area. But it was only an introduction to what we really needed to see: the status and deployment of forces in the so-called “Parrot’s Beak,” the wild salient of northern Kurram which made a sharp, narrow, westward triangular bulge in the Pakistan-Afghanistan frontier, and where it seemed bin Laden and his followers might emerge as they fled their U.S. and Afghan pursuers.

“I probably shouldn’t be witnessing this, I thought.”

We continued north along the Kurram River, now escorted by two truckloads of scouts from the Kurram Militia, through the Chapri Post, past which no foreigners were allowed to venture without official permission into the dangerous areas beyond. The waning afternoon light gave the landscape—carved by millennia of floods—a timeless, ethereal quality as the road climbed up the flanking escarpment and then plunged back down, again and again, to the ever-shifting gravel bed of the valley floor below, crossing and recrossing the rushing torrent. Jafar was highly nostalgic about the area. Here he had served during the 1980s as the commander of a tank squadron charged with blocking a possible Soviet advance across the Afghan border and down the Kurram River Valley. The expectation was that if the Soviets sought to punish Pakistan for its support of the mujahideen, this would have been one of their prime axes of attack. As a young captain, he had had few illusions about how long he could resist the superior armor of the Soviet Army; his plan, once the last of his tanks had been destroyed, was to escape with his wife by disguising themselves as shepherds and driving a small flock of goats along a track to the east. In places where the river spread out in dozens of small watercourses across the broad rock and gravel expanse of the valley bottom, we splashed through shallow spillways flanked incongruously by weathered concrete “dragon’s teeth” tank barriers.

We arrived just at sunset in the small garrison town of Parachinar, located on a flat, treed expanse defining the far northern edge of the Kurram Valley, flanked on the north by the towering peaks of the Safed Koh, and on the west by the northern end of the Sulaiman range. We drove through the small cantonment area, finally stopping at the British-built stone fort, constructed in the 1890s as the headquarters of the Kurram Militia. It was a place straight out of Kipling. After being welcomed by the colonel in command, we ate a quick dinner and played a game of billiards in the dark, wood-paneled room that had once been the commander’s bar during British times, before retiring for the night in the officers’ guest quarters.

The following day, we stepped outside into the clear, cool morning air to see spectacular, snow-capped peaks towering above us. The commander provided us with a comprehensive briefing on his manpower and force structure, as well as the positions of all his border posts and checkpoints, and the schedules and patterns of combat patrols being conducted all along the border for which he was responsible. It was an earnest and credible presentation, and made it appear, when viewed on a map, that the entire area south of Tora Bora—from the tip of the Parrot’s Beak at the western end of the Safed Koh, all the way to the Tirah Valley in Khyber Agency to the east—was well covered. One look at the difficulty of the terrain, however, made it clear that sealing this area would be nearly impossible. The problem was compounded by the fact that the slopes, ravines, and foothills leading up to the high peaks were a so-called “no-go” area, where even the troopers of the Kurram Militia could not patrol, by agreement with the tribes. It seemed clear to me that as and when al-Qa’ida “squirters” fled through the high passes, the best hope of intercepting them would be immediately on the Pakistani side, where the topography would naturally channel them into corridors that could be patrolled and surveilled. As things were, the Frontier Corps could only hope to capture the Arabs as they emerged onto the roads and tracks of the valley below—a much more difficult proposition, and one made nearly impossible by the modest forces at hand.

At the tip of the Parrot’s Beak at the far western end of the Safed Koh is Peiwar Kotal, the mountain pass through which Major General Sir Frederick Roberts made his surprise attack on Kabul in the Second Anglo-Afghan War of the 1870s. It was there that we met the border guards who had shown so much equanimity over their close encounter with an American bomb. Crossing the border and marching several hundred yards up the road, our Pak Army and Frontier Corps escorts in tow, Jafar and I made an inspection of the wrecked Taliban border post, climbing up on the rubble of what had once been a large stone building. Looking down from this little promontory, Jafar spied a dark green plastic object on the ground; it had the shape of a large, rounded cakepan.

“That’s the cover of an antitank mine,” he said. We looked at one another. “Perhaps we should climb down,” he continued. I agreed, suddenly far more observant of where I was stepping. Close by, we found a jagged hole, clearly made by an American penetrator. It had burrowed at a slight angle, deep into solid bedrock. One couldn’t see the bottom. Jafar stared at it in wonder, eventually calling one of the Pak Army jawans over. He was to come back, Jafar ordered, with a long string, to which he was to tie a rock. Jafar wanted to know just how deep that hole was.

We climbed from there up the steep hillside where the Frontier Corpsmen were eager to show us the new fighting positions they had constructed overlooking the pass. They had taken advantage of the Taliban guards’ departure to move several of their observation posts to higher ground, in effect moving the Pak-Afghan frontier farther west. Jafar smiled and looked on approvingly. “I probably shouldn’t be witnessing this,” I thought.

On the long drive back to Islamabad, I compared notes and shared my thoughts with the general, who would be filing a report immediately upon his return. I cannot say for certain whether our inspection trip and Jafar’s report were the cause, but two days later, on December 1, the governor of the North-West Frontier Province, Lieutenant General Iftikhar Hussein Shah, flew to Parachinar for a grand jirga with all the maliks of the Upper Kurram area. The tribal leaders agreed that for the first time in Pakistan’s history, they would permit Pakistani government forces to move up onto the slopes and into the high passes of the Safed Koh—provided that the government sent regular Pakistan Army troops, and not the Frontier Corps. Their rationale was that Pak Army troops would surely leave when their mission was completed, whereas the Frontier Corps, once permitted to move into that area, would be far more likely to stay.

The maliks agreed to organize lashgars, or local militia units, to guide and accompany the Pak Army troops in setting up watch posts high in the mountains. Each combined unit of militia fighters and Pak Army jawans was to include the son of a prominent malik, as a guarantee against betrayal by the tribes. The first Pak Army troops began to move in immediately, employing mules to transport their gear on the steep mountain tracks. In a matter of days, they had moved some six battalions—over 4,000 men—high above Parachinar. As the troops dug in to seek shelter from the frosty mountain winds, they could hear the rumble of huge explosions from across the peaks. The massive American bombardment of bin Laden’s Arabs, trapped in Tora Bora, was beginning.

Reprinted with permission.


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