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"So you want to hear about Osama Bin Laden?"
I was sitting with Pakistan's most famous spymaster, Brigadier Mohammed Yusaf. He was the Inter-Services Intelligence director of Afghan operations during the 1980s. A grizzled lion of a man in his late 60s, he is impatient in movement and speech, though he was slowed by a recent heart attack. Yusaf was the king of the Afghan resistance groups. He gave them guns, ammo, pack mules, and told them which Soviet targets to hit. ("Stubborn chaps, these Afghans, but damn good fighters. The best," he says.)
Most retired Pakistani generals live in grand style, and I was surprised that Yusaf's house, in an army garrison town named Wah, was modestly middle-classa sign, perhaps, that he hadn't pocketed the Afghan war funds gushing in from the CIA and the Saudis, as many of his chums had. He led me into his Spartan living room, whose only decorations were 16 regimental shields.
"Yes, Osama. All we knew is that there was a young Arab sheik, very wealthy, who was digging lots of tunnels and caves for the mujahedin," says the brigadier.
"Was he a good fighter?" I ask. An ex-CIA station chief in Islamabad had once told me: "Osama was better at posing with his AK-47 than actually using it." But I wondered if that were true or just agency trash talk. The spymaster shrugs and replies, "He was one of many Arabs. They fought well at Jaji against the Russians. If you want an answer, you must go to Jaji."
Jaji was one of the biggest mujahedin bases, a warren of over 500 caves and tunnels in the forested ranges of the Spin Ghar mountains. It was also deep inside Taliban territory. I set out from Kabul by road, across mountains where Kuchi nomads camped with their camel herds on green slopes illuminated by solitary shafts of sunlight breaking through the clouds. In Afghanistan, the mountain passes were heavily mined by Soviets, mujahedin and later the Taliban, and often we saw crews of de-miners who had marked off hillsides with a grid of red and white stones, like the skin of some patient being prepared for surgery.
The only safe way to reach bin Laden's caves was to be accompanied by a Jaji tribesman. This ensured that the Taliban would leave us alone. Our guide was a turbaned ex-muj with only two bottom teeth and whose name translated as "Strange Flower." Traveling by a hired Land Cruiser, we followed a wadia dry river valleythrough a labyrinth of narrow gorges that revealed adobe villages rising above groves of pomegranate and mulberry trees. The valleys grew steeper, covered with holly shrubs and twisted pines, and soon we were up against the forbidding Spin Ghar range whose icy crests were like a line of approaching white clouds. In Jaji we were met by an old muj commander, Mohammed Daoud. A giant with long hair, he had a beard that reached his ample chest, and a rumbling, deep laughter. He reminded me of a jovial musketeer. Daoud agreed to show us bin Laden's masterwork of tunnels. At the bottom of a boulder-strewn ravine, bin Laden had used bulldozers from his daddy's construction firm to hollow out three interconnecting tunnels in the mountainside, which served as a field hospital and a main command center for the mujahedin groups. The Soviets knew the tunnels existed and regularly launched Scuds into the ravine, but they caused no damage. I spotted one bomb crater near the entrance.
"A Scud?" I ask.
"No, from the Americans," replies Daoud. Bin Laden's other subterranean resort, Tora Bora, was just on the other side of the mountains, and after Sept. 11, 2001, U.S. forces thought bin Laden might have bolted back to this original hideout. When asked about bin Laden, Daoud turns evasive. He says he remembers himbarely. "He was an ordinary fighter. Quiet, young. We didn't know he'd left such a golden life to become part of the mujahedin. There wasn't anything special about himnot then."
By all accounts, bin Laden's first taste of battle was at Jaji. By April 1987, the Soviet generals realized that the only chance of stopping the Afghan resistance was to seal off the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. The honeycomb of rebel caves at Jaji was top of their list. According to Daoud, a column of Soviet tanks, backed by swarms of helicopters and more than 200 Úlite commando troops, advanced past Jaji village into the mountains. Their first target was a subterranean base farther down the valley, known as the New Camp, where over 500 fighters were dug in, including bin Laden. More than 60 of bin Laden's Arab comrades died along with hundreds of Afghans, but thousands of fighters went rushing through the forests to outflank the Soviets. The siege lasted over a week, and the Soviets were driven back. Soviet generals later conceded that after the defeat at Jaji, they knew the Afghan war was unwinnable, but another two punishing years were to pass before their final withdrawal.
According to Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001, the masterful account of recent Afghan history by Steve Coll of the Washington Post, the fight at Jaji "marked the birth of Osama bin Laden's public reputation as a warrior among Arab jihadists." That reputation was burnished by bin Laden himself, according to Coll, who claims that after the battle, bin Laden went on a recruitment tour back home in Saudi Arabia and exalted his own role as "a military leader" in the Jaji battle. "The Arabs fought well," recalls Daoud. "But I can't remember that bin Laden fought any better or more fiercely than anyone else."