KHOST, Afghanistan – The dusty soldier from Charlie Company of the 1st Battalion of the 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment, just off a four-day mission into the rugged mountains separating Afghanistan and Pakistan put it this way: "When we go into a village we give them the Michael Jackson test. We ask the locals if they know who Michael Jackson is. If they don't...and many around here don't...then we figure they don't know much else...like where the bad guys are."
Welcome to the search for the Usama bin Laden. The most publicized hunt for the most wanted man in the world is also one of the most invisible and hard to pin down. Just like the terrorists: "It's like putting your fist into a bucket of water," another soldier told me. "When your fist is down there the water moves away. When you take it out again, the water comes back."
The 1-501 is based just outside of the town of Khost in eastern Afghanistan. It is as close to Usamaland as you can get. Before Operation Enduring Freedom began in 2001 UBL's Al Qaeda and his host, the Taliban, firmly ran the place. Bin Laden poured a lot of money into Khost, building, for example a mosque and school still popular with the locals. And he had a sprawling terror-training complex in the hills nearby called Zawar Khilli.
That was pretty much flattened by U.S. cruise missiles after the U.S. African Embassy bombings in 1998. But the Arabs and others who frequented the place hung on. Until 2001 --maybe.
"They all say that Al Qaeda is not there," says Captain Jason Condrey, commander of the 1-501's Charlie Company, "but you're never sure. They have kind of an 'early warning system.'" Condrey described one time his men approached a village in the area. Before they could reach it, 70 different fires were set on the hillside.
In fact, it is thought by intelligence officials here, that most of the hard-core Al Qaeda members have fled the area, probably for the relatively more secure confines of Pakistan's Tribal Area just across the border from Khost about ten miles away. But sympathies for the booted-out Taliban regime and their allies (ACM or Anti-Coalition Militia as the military calls them) remains. "They're in favor of anyone who will give them security," says the 1-501's head of intelligence Capt. Ed Kilgore. The public sign of sympathies for one-time hard-line Islamic regime: audiocassette tape strung around white flags along the road. Cassette music was banned by the Taliban. The flags mark purported (but usually false) victories by militants against U.S. forces. "It's a propaganda war," says Kilgore.
And, in fact, the 1-501 has been making progress in this one-time hotbed of anti-U.S. sentiment. Rocket and explosive attacks on its base and convoys have gone down dramatically. In the last several months, the unit hasn't suffered any casualties, a remarkable accomplishment to this reporter coming from months in the still very blood-drenched Iraqi battlefield. A lot of terror suspects and weaponry have been gathered. Support for the local government has been strengthened.
But that doesn't mean the trouble is finished. Just this weekend local Afghan officials report three different incidents in town: an attempted homicide bomber who blew himself up; a rocket attack near another U.S. base here that left six civilians injured in a restaurant; and three hand grenade attacks on Afghan soldiers working with the U.S. military.
So where does all leave the hunt for Usama bin Laden? As in Iraq, U.S.-led forces here are using the bottom-up approach to getting to the terror leadership. "In a lot of cases it's not Usama bin Laden we're after," says intel boss Kilgore, "It's more mid-range types. Then they can lead us to others." They're also denying safe havens to the terrorists and turning local sentiment against them. Most here don't think Usama is hiding out in the immediate Khost vicinity. But they have no doubt that the nearby mountain ranges, which form the very loose border between Afghanistan and Pakistan are, at the very least, a "terrorist turnpike" for movement if not the hiding of many Al Qaeda members.
Then there is Pakistan. The troops I'm with are supposed to be the "anvil" that Al Qaeda members will slam into while fleeing from the "hammer" of the Pakistan army going after terror suspects in the Tribal Area. While there has been some real offensive activity by the Pakistan forces against Al Qaeda suspects, there hasn't been a flood of frightened militants coming the 1-501's way.
The analysis here is that the terrorists are still gauging the seriousness of the Pakistan effort before they pick up and run. If Pakistan falters, some analysts think the U.S. and its allies will have to take up the task in a bigger way there than they're doing now. A lot of soldiers I'm with here would be more than happy to answer the call. "Just let me get into Pakistan," said one dirt-covered veteran of another local mission.
And while Special Force units are leading the hunt for Usama, it could very well be one of these young men or women from the 1-501 who stumbles across the guy or gets the tip-off which will lead others to the guy who sent 3000+ Americans and many others to their deaths. Stranger things have happened.
I remember a "spider-hole" near Tikrit...