Archive for January 2010
The Sunday Times
By Christina Lamb and Miles Amoore
It was the week after Christmas and there was a line of paper Santas hanging in the small chow house at Forward Operating Base Chapman, sent to Afghanistan by loved ones back home.
Among the CIA agents waiting in the morning chill, amid the exercise bicycles and weights, were a mother of three and a father of three who had had to tell their children they would not be home for Christmas.
This was not the first time since 9/11 that they had been stuck on some remote base in Afghanistan. But this time they believed the sacrifice would be worth it, for they believed they were about to land the biggest present imaginable to an American intelligence agent.
Hunting down Osama Bin Laden has recently been given new urgency by President Barack Obama, anxious for some kind of victory that would enable him to pull out troops from Afghanistan.
Now, eight years after losing the trail in the mountains of Tora Bora, it suddenly seemed that US intelligence workers had got the piece of luck they had been praying for.
The CIA deputy country director had flown in from Kabul, CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, was alerted and the White House was on notice to expect a call.
The mother of three — the agency chief at Chapman — had spent the past 14 years of her life tracking Bin Laden and this was the moment she had been waiting for. An original member of Alec Station, the CIA team dedicated to hunting the Al-Qaeda leader, she had an “encyclopaedic knowledge” of Al-Qaeda, according to colleagues.
The man they were waiting for was a 32-year-old Jordanian doctor called Humam Khalil Abu Mulal al-Balawi.
He was driving across the border from Pakistan where he had spent a year becoming close to Ayman al-Zawahiri, Bin Laden’s Egyptian deputy. That morning, Wednesday December 30, Balawi had been picked up at the Ghulam Khan border crossing by an Afghan army commander called Arghawan, who was in charge of security at the Chapman base. The pair drove to the village of Mermandi, near Khost in southeastern Afghanistan, where at about 12.30pm they were met by Arghawan’s driver. Read the rest of this entry »
Tactics used by the Taliban to cut supply routes in Helmand have forced the army to change the way it maintains its remote bases. Taliban mines block the only main road that connects the British bases, pushing the supply line out into the desert where it is vulnerable to ambushes and minefields.
The burnt-out shells of civilian lorries that line Route 611, the main north-south road through the upper Helmand valley, bear witness to the potency of Taliban tactics. Many of the wrecks are now booby trapped with improvised explosive devices, better known as IEDs.
To reach remote bases along the Helmand river, supply convoys are obliged to drive for days through Taliban-held territory, dodging IEDs, mortar fire and ambushes.
“Every time you step outside the wire everyone is a target,” said Lieutenant-Colonel Martin Moore, commanding officer of 10 the Queen’s Own Gurkha Logistic Regiment. “We use helicopters but certain commodities just have to go by road.”
Beyond the “green zone”, the lush valley that straddles Route 611, lies the Helmand desert, a mixture of wadis and sand banks broken by sharp mountain peaks.
Military convoys with up to 200 vehicles can stretch for six miles as they trundle along, kicking up dust and sand clouds. Afghan security companies often attach their lorries to British convoys for protection.
The convoys travel through a stretch of sand and shale that at times narrows to less than half a mile, allowing the Taliban to scatter mines across the route.
Last month I joined a convoy from Camp Bastion retracing the route of an October convoy to Sangin and its nearby forward operating bases that had become the most heavily fought over in recent times. The Taliban laid clusters of mines to block our progress but two strikes did little to hinder us and an ambush outside Sangin felt like a formality compared with the fighting in October. Read the rest of this entry »