Day 9: You Will Become the Target

10:11 pm 30 March 04 Islamabad, Pakistan

A meeting yesterday with a top general:

The goal is to get to where the army is, in the tribal area along the border with Afghanistan. The general had a wisp of black hair parted over his brown scalp. A major had us wait out front a few minutes then let us in. Important people never let you straight in. We sat in front of his desk and he asked us if we wanted tea. There is no drinking in Pakistan, a Muslim country. If you want alcohol in the hotel you have to sign a form that acknowledges you are an alcoholic. So it is available.

Tea was fine, a cup of Lipton yellow label with the bag still in the cup, no milk for fear of food poisoning, and a cookie taken out of courtesy. The general asked what we wanted. I said we wanted to embed with Pakistani forces hunting terrorists in the tribal area. The major had asked the same thing and laughed at my answer.

"We are not a superpower," he said, smiling.

"You have nuclear weapons," I said.

"Yes, we have nuclear weapons," he said. "You can raise this issue with the general and see what he says."

This was the way in Pakistan, a most polite and formal way, of saying no. It is a country where 19th century colonial English expressions and manners are still used. The terrorists are referred to as "miscreants."

The general did not laugh. He did say the risk of kidnapping would be too high and endanger Pakistan troops. Pakistan got a black eye internationally after Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl was kidnapped and killed. For two weeks it was a top story in the world. Now they would make sure no Western reporter got kidnapped again. An armed soldier now appeared on the roof during my live shots. I don't think he spoke much English. We saluted each other each time I came up. The Pakistani salute is a more open-handed palm you wave.

I went to Karachi when Daniel Pearl was kidnapped, and was on the roof of a hotel doing live shots when we learned he was killed.

What got me about his killing was that it was filmed and put on computer discs for distribution. The planning to kill Pearl was done over Internet messages. So they slit his throat then put it on the Web for distribution. It was a mix of the latest technology and the oldest barbarism. That is what made me afraid. I had hoped that computers, cable television, asphalt, would bring us closer together. Instead they may only make more efficient barbarians.

Adil the fixer also said we would be kidnapped in the tribal area.

"Word will spread everywhere that there is an American there, and you will become the target. They will come from all over."

The general listened to me for a minute, then started to talk. It turned into a full briefing. A junior officer brought in a videotape of Pakistani soldiers on the hunt. Then the general turned his computer screen towards us. He had all kinds of maps that he could make appear and disappear. It was the movements of the Pakistani army. From the lines on the screen you could see how they threw up mathematically perfect cordons around key terrorist bases. Even individual terrorist houses were labeled. The cordons and the movements changed each day, and the date and the time of day came up on the screen as well. The general had a small instrument that he touched the screen with. Each time he touched the screen it made an unpleasant sound, of metal touching the screen. I looked at the object he was using to point looked like a miniature cake-cutter or a trowel for laying mortar. Each time he touched the screen to point out the movements of troops the tip of the trowel shook after it hit the screen.

Three Pakistani officials had said they had cornered the Al Qaeda number two man, the Egyptian surgeon Ayman al Zawahiri. Others hinted at a high value target. They said it so much it became an abbreviation, and the media began to talk about HVT's. No HVT was found. Instead, an elaborate network of tunnels was found underneath mud houses. About one hundred people were killed, sixty fighters, forty soldiers. There was talk of a second HVT, a terrorist from Uzbekistan, who was "badly wounded" but not caught. Then there was talk of the chief of Al Qaeda intelligence, a man called Abdullah, who was reported to have had been killed. But officials could not provide a last name or a country of origin. It was as if the FBI announced an important criminal named "Joe" had been captured. Later officials said that "Abdullah" was not an intelligence chief, but a local leader. There seemed to be a fair gap between the Power Point presentation and the mountains.

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