The whereabouts of Osama bin Laden and U.S efforts to capture and kill him have made many media headlines over the years, resulting in some plausible speculation and many figments of the imagination. But the June 28 U.S. military operation in Afghanistan’s northeastern Kunar province may have stirred the hornet’s nest of Praetorian Guards around the al-Qaeda leader, who is presumed to be ensconced in the 15,000-foot-high mountains and steep forested valleys of Nuristan province just north of Kunar, and the U.S. military may have come closer to its quarry than ever before.
That operation, which resulted in the loss of a Chinook MH-47 helicopter with 16 Special Operations Forces personnel sent to extract a four-man Navy Seal reconnaissance team trapped in the area, points to a level of sophisticated enemy activity not seen before. It was the single biggest loss of U.S. military personnel in a hostile action since Afghanistan was invaded by U.S. and Coalition forces after September 11, 2001.
The military activity in Kunar province is still ongoing with some 300 personnel involved, including Afghan government soldiers. The B-52 bombing of a suspected militant hideout on July 1 reportedly killed 17 civilians, including women and children, in Chichal village. The U.S. military has since apologized. (PakTribune.com, July 5).
The campaign first began as a sweep against al-Qaeda and Taliban remnants, dubbed Operation Red Wing. But on June 28 the 4-man Navy Seal reconnaissance team was cornered by the enemy on a 10,000-foot mountain ridge. They called in for help; two Chinook helicopters were sent to their rescue, one of them was shot down, presumably by a shoulder-fired missile.
Aboard the Chinook MH-47, which is a special version of the large transport helicopter modified with electronic sensors and other defenses against ground fire and deployed to fly almost exclusively at night, were eight Navy Seals and eight members of the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment, a unit of elite Army helicopter crews that flies Special Forces commandos behind enemy lines under cover of night. (PakTribune.com, July 9). That the al-Qaeda-Taliban enemy can now fight at night – an advantage always retained by the U.S. military – points once more to the sophistication of the attack and probable engagement with a segment of bin Laden’s Praetorian Guards that are believed to be deployed in three concentric circles around him.
Subsequently, after the recovery of the 16 dead bodies from the downed helicopter after much harassment by the enemy and bad weather two days later, one Navy Seal member of the reconnaissance team was extracted from friendly Afghan villagers who had sheltered him. Thereafter, the bodies of two other Navy Seals of the reconnaissance team were recovered. The fourth Navy Seal was reported to be held captive by the enemy, according to Taliban spokesman Abdul Latif Hakimi, who spoke to local media on satellite telephone from an undisclosed location on July 3. But the U.S. military continued its hunt for the missing Navy Seal, discounting the claim of the Taliban. Finally, on July 9, Hakimi told the local media that the captured Navy Seal had been beheaded after being interrogated, and that his body had been left on a mountainside in Shagal district of Kunar province. (Dawn, July 10). Late on July 10, the U.S. military said that they had recovered his body.
Ever since bin Laden escaped the saturation B-52 bombing of the Tora Bora mountains in northeastern Nangarhar province of Afghanistan in December 2001, he was believed to have made a stand in March 2002 in the Shahikot mountains of the southeastern province of Paktia, where the U.S. military lost two helicopters (with several others so badly damaged in the firefight they could not redeploy without repairs) and eight soldiers killed and 40 wounded in one of the fiercest showdowns with al-Qaeda and the Taliban in the campaign dubbed Anaconda. That campaign also involved the rescue of a missing Navy Seal. The Anaconda campaign like the one in Tora Bora were essentially failures, largely because the U.S. military used local tribesmen in the vanguard of action, and most of the enemy escaped unscathed.
However, this time it seems that the U.S. military is again on the trail of bin Laden, whether deliberately or by chance, it will likely never be known, owing to the secrecy of the operation and predictable Pentagon silence over failures. This operation in Kunar itself is murky with information leaked out only when it is favorable and not when self-defeating. Two Afghan nationals reporting for Radio Free Afghanistan, a subunit of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFERL), and two others for a deliberately unnamed Western news agency were arrested by local Afghan security agencies in Kunar province. ( PakTribune.com, July 5).
A related report in the British press said that SAS commando troops both in Afghanistan and their base in Hereford, England were placed on high alert during the Kunar operation. The news was that bin Laden or a senior lieutenant may have been cornered. (Mirror.co.uk, 27 June).
Nevertheless, there have been earlier plausible reports of bin Laden’s whereabouts, such as a comprehensive one in the September 8, 2003 issue of Newsweek that said bin Laden is hiding in the Kunar mountains. It contained an interview with an old villager living in the Pech river valley whose daughter is married to an Algerian bodyguard of bin Laden. This Praetorian Guard reportedly visits the man’s house every two months or so to be with his wife and three sons. When asked where the “Grand Sheikh” is, the old man points to the mountains above Pech valley. That is now the newly created province of Nuristan officially designated in 2004 with its capital also called Nuristan. It is larger but less populated than Kunar province, where the U.S. military maintains a Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) in Asadabad, the provincial capital. Elements of this PRT team have been busy recently helping police in Nuristan with new communications equipment. (Defendamerica.mil, January 10).
In September 2003, videotape footage released by al-Jazeera also showed bin Laden and deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri scrambling down mountain slopes similar to those found in Kunar and Nuristan.
Nuristan (land of light) has a 250-kilometer long border with Pakistan’s Chitral state. Nuristan and part of Chitral state adjoining it were known as Kafiristan (land of the animist unbelievers) before people there were converted to Islam toward the end of the 19th century. The Pakistani portion of Kafiristan still retained its Greek Dionysian religion until the mujahideen arrived in the 1980s from across the border to virtually convert every Kafir. Rudyard Kipling’s story of “The Man Who Would Be King” is based in Kafiristan.
The proximity of bin Laden in that region has been further borne out by a June 17 ABC News report that says that a group of Arabs have been observed coming down from the mountains across the border from Afghanistan to a small market town in Chitral state in Pakistan to buy bags of rice and flour. In addition, an al-Qaeda compound has been discovered in the nearby Bajaur tribal area to the south, where captured Afghan fighters told Pakistan Army interrogators that it had been used as a safe house by bin Laden’s deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri. The prisoners confessed that a heavily guarded, masked man regularly visited the safe house in February and March. The report goes on to say that Pakistani officials believe Zawahiri and Bin Laden move between a string of safe houses in the winter months and then retreat to mountain caves in the summer.
More recently, an unnamed intelligence agency was frantic to hire a speaker of the Balti language spoken in Baltistan, an area in northwestern Kashmir controlled by Pakistan that is officially known as the Northern Areas. Balti is an East Tibetan language that has been Persianized. The people in Chitral and Nuristan speak various dialects of the Dardic language of the Indo-European group. Frequently, residents of one valley cannot understand inhabitants of the next valley, so isolated are they by the tall mountains.
The likelihood, however, of bin Laden being in Pakistan’s Northern Areas is slim. The land consists of high mountain plateaus and valleys with little forest cover. Back in 2002, the Israeli website Debka.org first pronounced that bin Laden is holed up somewhere in the Pamir Mountains that begin in Afghanistan’s northeastern Badakhshan province, farther northeast of Nuristan, and continue into Tajikistan and beyond. Later, the website added that bin Laden could also be in India’s Kashmir Valley and Pakistan’s Northern Areas. (Newsline.com.pk, June 3, 2002).
While speculation about bin Laden’s whereabouts continue today, more than likely he is holed up in Nuristan, and the ongoing U.S. military action just to the south in Kunar seems to bolster that argument. Moreover, the Pentagon announced on July 11 that 700 more soldiers from the 82nd Airborne Division will be deployed from Fort Bragg, North Carolina to Afghanistan in the next two weeks to fight terrorism and provide security for the upcoming Afghan parliamentary elections in September.