FIREBASE MAHOLIC, Afghanistan – Usama bin Laden built it. Taliban leader Mullah Omar lived in it. But today it's the Green Berets who call it home. Firebase Maholic, a sprawling and spacious compound on the outskirts of the southern Afghan city of Kandahar, is plush living by typical U.S. Special Forces standards.
There's plenty of serious work here. A constant roar of shooting-range gunfire bounces off a towering granite peak behind the complex. Military missions are planned here. And Special Forces soldiers recently started training 130 new Afghan recruits for the country's fledgling auxiliary police force.
"The irony of this is that the home of the (Taliban's) supreme leader is being used to train forces whose mission it is to destroy the force he created," said Rusty, the team leader of a Special Forces detachment. Teams usually consist of 12 members. Rusty, like all Green Beret soldiers in the field, is not allowed to be fully identified.
But soldiers here readily acknowledge that Omar's digs aren't a bad place to refresh in between multi-day missions conducted in the barest of conditions.
The Green Berets can relax in front of a doublewide fireplace in the cafeteria, admire the three catfish in the nearby two-tier fountain or take a dip in the swimming pool — a rarity in Afghanistan.
Meant to be the Taliban's presidential palace and once used as a militant training ground, the complex is big enough for a looping five-mile run through the rolling hills that obscure the complex from a distance. Canadian and other elite units are also based at the complex, which was shattered by U.S. bombs in late 2001 but has since been rebuilt.
Even the food gets extra high marks. Soldiers on Sunday night enjoyed barbecue chicken, spicy hamburgers and pork ribs roasted on a large outdoor grill.
"Oh man, it doesn't get any better than this," said one Special Forces soldier, a Sergeant 1st Class intelligence specialist. "I've been to Afghanistan enough to know living at a firebase can't get much better."
Secretive units of U.S. Special Forces have been deployed at the compound since soon after the fall of the Taliban, and were an integral part of two NATO-led operations last fall in the province of Kandahar — the militia's former stronghold — that NATO say killed more than 500 suspected fighters.
Their crests — skulls with crossed arrows — and mottos like "Pressure, Pursue, Punish" and "Free the Oppressed" adorn the compound's walls. Three eagles by the pool wear green berets. A skull in another painting has evil red eyes and a yellow and green turban.
Two hundred yards outside the compound, Omar built a bunker system some 40 feet below ground that once had electricity and running water. Three large craters — the result of 2,000-pound bombs — mark each of the cave's entrances. The Taliban leader had already fled by the time American forces arrived in late 2001 and remains at large.
"Whoever was in there, I'm sure their ears were ringing," said the U.S. commander, a Special Forces major, in charge of Mulholic.
The bunker, built in a "T" shape at the bottom of a large hill, still has its lighting and shower fixtures. The metal framework holding the concrete roof in place is bent in half from the bombs' force. The cave, with concrete floors and walls, has two bedrooms, two bathrooms with squat toilets and two rooms for weapons and ammo storage.
Special Forces soldiers are training about 130 Afghans as auxiliary police, a new program designed to boost police ranks across the country. The Afghans, from three districts in northern Kandahar province, will receive weapons, driver's and human rights training. About 30 Afghans completed a similar training program in the fall.
"This is the way ahead for us. The more capable these guys are the less involved we have to be," said the captain in charge of the training. "It's definitely worthwhile."
Special Forces soldiers here said the major obstacle with the country's police was that their paychecks are often late or inadequate. The regular and auxiliary police also need more training and equipment, they said.
"If I wasn't being paid to work in a combat zone, unable to feed my family, I'd be pretty upset," said the captain. He and other soldiers said they wanted the problem publicized so that it might be fixed.
The captain said that Afghans here don't talk about the fact they are training on Omar's old compound, but they know they are. Kandahar residents still refer to the compound as Omar's.
Omar, the one-eyed leader of the fundamentalist regime that hosted Al Qaeda, seldom left his heavily guarded compound. The outside world was not welcome and he rarely met anyone who was not a Muslim. In his bedroom was a trunk of money that he paid his commanders out of.
Construction on it began around 1996 — the year the Taliban took control in Afghanistan — and took about three years to complete. Rusty said Bin Laden financed it for Omar — whose whereabouts are still not known, though a Taliban spokesman captured by Afghan officials last week said he is living in Quetta, Pakistan, across the border from Kandahar province. Pakistani officials claim Omar is still somewhere in Kandahar province, directing the Taliban insurgency.
The complex was first called Camp Gecko, after the lizard-like creatures that scale the walls. It was renamed Firebase Maholic after Mast. Sgt. Thomas Maholic, of Bradford, Pa., who was killed in Kandahar province's Panjwayi district in June.