Looking for Answers in Mazar-e-Sharif

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An anti-Taliban fighter searches a former al Qaeda cave

The interrogation wasn't going well. "Why are you here?" asked one of the Americans. "What are you doing in Afghanistan?" When the question was translated, Mullah Abdullah snorted and, gesticulated with his open palm to the American, and retorted, "Why are you here?"

The American ignored his prisoner's demand. "How many are you? How many others are you in touch with?" Mullah Abdullah wouldn't answer. Sighing he beamed up at his questioners and said, "I'm not telling you anything. I'm not afraid of dying."

The operation to dismantle al Qaeda is slow going in Afghanistan. When the Taliban crumbled in the face of the American bombardment last November and December, thousands of foot soldiers surrendered to the Northern Alliance. But many thousands more, including most of the commanders and the bulk of al Qaeda, simply melted away. Hundreds are suspected to have crossed into Pakistan. But many more shaved their beards, ditched their black turbans and bought safe refuge in the myriad out-of-the-way villages and hamlets that dot the Afghan countryside.

Efforts continue to pinpoint al Qaeda members: Mazar-e-Sharif intelligence chief Mohammed Anwar said the population has been warned that anyone caught harboring al Qaeda operatives will be considered a terrorist themselves; 610 agents send him information from hundreds of miles around as well as checkpoints strung across every major road. The CIA has also set up groups in every major city across the nation, he says: in addition to the intelligence officers he works with, there are agents working on propaganda to convince Afghans that Americans are in their country to help. "The mission is to take apart al Qaeda piece by piece," he says, "But it's very difficult work. Al Qaeda has a lot of money. And the villages are very poor. Al Qaeda offers them money and they have to take it."

So far, the successes are few and far between. Besides Abdullah, just two other Arab al Qaeda members have been captured. Abdullah was the first to be found. Acting on a report from one of his spies that Abdullah was hiding out in Khulshalabad, a hamlet to the west of Mazar with his wife, son and daughter, Anwar paid a visit. He told the people the Americans were intent on hunting down every al Qaeda member. "If you don't give him up the Americans will bomb you," he told them, "They aren't just going to go away." Abdullah surrendered within 24 hours. A Saudi and former Taliban intelligence officer, he was considered quite a catch. When Anwar went to pick him up, the CIA tagged along and interrogated him on the spot. "The Americans gave me $5000 for him and 100 uniforms for my men," grins Anwar, "For them, anything is worth the price to make sure Al Qaeda no longer exists."

In the north, they are convinced Osama bin Laden and Mullah Omar are living with three other high-ranking al Qaeda and Taliban leaders in a small single room house in Eastern Pakistan. For them, enemy number one is Mullah Dadullah, the feared former second in command of northern Afghanistan who refused to surrender alongside his superior, Mullah Fazil, at Kunduz in November. He has been hiding out ever since, surrounded by ten bodyguards, moving from house to house and sending the Alliance and CIA on occasional high speed chases across the desert around Mazar. "He only drinks bottled Pepsi from the shops and lives almost entirely on cakes and bread." says one Alliance agent. "If he eats with a family in their home, he always swaps his plate with the one given to the head of the house. He only moves at night, and he has a bag of dollars in his car to buy his safety. His guards are always on alert. Some people say he keeps a string of explosives around his waist."

In late December, word went around that Dadullah was in Balkh, 25 kilometers to the west of Mazar: the CIA and hundreds of Alliance soldiers descended on the town and searched every house. "The soldiers just use it as an excuse to take whatever they wanted," said the agent, "They stole everything and even raped some of the women." In mid-February there was another report that Dadullah was in Sancharak, the tiny village in the mountains to the south of Mazar. Alliance commander Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum, confident that Dadullah was as good as caught, was rash enough to announce on the radio that the former scourge of Mazar would soon be under lock and key. Again, hundreds of his men raced out and again, Dadullah escaped. "We will get him in the end, "says Anwar. "He can't escape- we have spies everywhere and he can't get past the checkpoints.

But it's a long job. There were thousands of al Qaeda members in Afghanistan — Afghans, Uzbeks, Arabs, Chechens, Pakistanis — and we don't know how many were killed, how many fled the country, and how many are hiding. We think we're looking for hundreds of people, but we don't really know." Certainly, in contrast to the American military, the CIA seems to be here for the duration. In Mazar they have rented a house for 6 months at $2500 a month. "They took an option to extend for a year," says the owner, "they're planning to be here for as long as it takes."