Sleeping in Mullah Omar's Bed

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It's a common impulse for conquerors to slip off and have a nap in the enemy's bed. That's why I wasn't too surprised to find a man sleeping in Mullah Mohammed Omar's bed in Kandahar. He had his machine-gun next to him, and when I asked him if he was dreaming of Mullah Omar, he growled "I'm too tired to dream," and he covered his head with a wool blanket.

I glanced around the room. The bed was small, considering that Omar has three wives and calls himself the Commander of the Faithful. Omar had run off long ago, as soon as the Americans started bombing Kandahar, and he hadn't left behind many personal mementos in his bedroom: a poster of the Medina mosque, some syrupy medicine, and the word Allah painted in gold and black on glass.

If Omar ever returns, he might find things have changed a bit around the house. First of all, about 40 U.S. special forces have moved in. You won't find them testing the Supreme Leader's mattress. They've set up a forest of radio antennas, and they prowl around in desert camouflague on a rooftop beside the spires of Omar's Arabian rococo mosque. The commandos are here to protect the other new tenant of Omar's house: Hamid Karzai, Afghanistan's new prime minister. With wrap-around shades, M-16 rifles, lap-tops, and their MRE's full of peanut butter, the commandos are a curiosity for Karzai's many visitors and well-wishers. These are turbaned tribal elders who gather in the old Taliban's war council room, sitting cross-legged and fingering their prayer beads in a gas lantern's blue light. Some of them greet Karzai with a good Pashtun hug; others kiss his hand. "Is my turban all right?" laughs Karzai when photographers appear. "And I haven't touched my beard in months now."

This war in Afghanistan is about real estate. And now that the Taliban are vanishing into the dust, the battle is on for the choice symbols of power. Omar's house, with its sentimental frescoes of waterfalls and flowers and plastic bedroom chandeliers, may not fit Karzai's urbane, westernized tastes. But Karzai is canny enough to know the importance of destroying the Afghan myth of Omar, the one-eyed visionary who conversed with the Prophet Mohammed in his dreams. And part of that destruction involves camping in Omar's kitsch mansion, and letting a common sentry snooze in his bed. "You should see the place," says Karzi, nearly rolling his eyes.

[an error occurred while processing this directive]The U.S. commandos, of course, are interested in a different kind of real estate — any place in Kandahar that belonged to Al Qaeda. They are looking for anything left behind that might lead them to Osama bin Laden or yield a clue as to what terrorist act Al Qaeda might be planning next.

The Allies are on the trail. This morning, a convoy of U.S. commandos and British Special Forces in 4x4s sped off into the desert south of Kandahar airport. On the horizon appeared a mud-walled fortress. Inside was an Al Qaeda training camp, with firing ranges, an underground bunker and a main headquarters. It was an early target for Cruise missiles, but the commandos were scouring the bombed-out camouflaged buildings for any leads.

The commandos found plenty to worry about. Blowing in the desert wind were documents that showing the global reach of bin Laden's network — and some of the chilling schemes that he was plotting.

The terrorists were obsessed with chemicals and planes. Scattered in the blasted rubble were manuals on chemicals and explosives, aviation magazines and a copy of Chemical Weekly that had been stolen from a public library in Kansas City. There were special suits for handling hazardous chemicals and a magazine profiling hundreds of kidnappable multi-millionaires from around the globe. Armed, and with their faces covered against the wind, the Allied commandos stalked the camp, clearing the area of hidden traps before the spooks arrive for a thorough search. What caught the commandos' attention was several plastic 50 gallon vats of a mysterious chemical liquid.

More U.S. special forces were inside Kandahar, bivouacked behind the blue arched Governor's House. They rode into town with the anti-Taliban soldiers of Ghul Agha Sherzai, a former governor who had been run out by the Taliban for his excesses. Sherzai's boys were celebrating. They'd captured one of Mullah Omar's cars, a sinister black Lexus 4x4 and were parading it around the driveway of the governor's house. Inside one of the many rooms in the vaulted mansion, they were horsing around with a bunch of leather straps used by the Taliban's dreaded religious police to whack men whose beards were too short or women who dared to wear white socks. Sherzai's men — the few who could read — jeered at Omar's edicts against drugs, and the air in the garden was fragrant from the hashish passed around by Sherzai's huddled ruffians.

While Sherzai doled out money, guns and ceremonial turbans to his new tribal allies in the city, the special forces were on terrorist patrol. When the Taliban fled Kandahar, scores of Arabs were left behind, and they hid where they could. Now, the Kandaharis are turning them in, and the Americans are coming to hunt down the last of bin Laden's men.