Caught In The Crossfire

Right now, we're waiting for the relative safety of daybreak. An American B-52 has dropped about four or five bombs on the nearby Shahikot mountains. They lit up the sky in a crazy glow of orange, yellow and purple, leaving a rose-colored halo around the snow. It was an incredible sight, but the demonstration of U.S. firepower bring us little comfort while we are trapped in this dangerous and exposed position outside the U.S. Special Forces military base near the eastern Afghan city of Gardez.

Even by Afghanistan standards, this has been one of those days. Earlier on Monday, we traveled west from Gardez to Zormat, the town that is closest to the scene of the latest American-led offensive against suspected Al Qaeda and Taliban fighters. The U.S. forces were suffering serious setbacks: at least seven Americans died when two helicopters took enemy fire. Their deaths came after American troops and their Afghan allies were forced to abandon a weekend ground assault on the Shahikot mountain cave system. During that attack, which lasted into the early morning hours on Saturday, an American Special Forces soldier and five American trained Afghan soldiers were killed. The retreat prompted the Americans to abandon the ground campaign and begin bombing in the hope that heavy air fire would soften the Qaeda fighters enough to allow them to make another ground offensive.

At the moment, though, I and the handful of journalists with me are less concerned about strategy than about our own immediate future. We're stuck here because it's too dangerous for us to go back to Gardez, less than two miles away. When we tried a few hours ago--accompanied by a truck filled with armed Afghan fighters assigned by the U.S. Special Forces to protect us--gunfire erupted all around us as we approached the city's checkpoint. Bullets bounced and ricocheted off the area, forcing us to jump from our cars into a nearby ditch. We started to crawl away from the vehicles, and when we were about 50 yards away we heard a massive explosion at the point.

We ran back to the trucks, turned off the lights, and drove back the U.S. base. When we got here, we were told we'd been near-victims of a mortar attack--whether aimed at our convoy or the U.S. base itself is still unclear. The U.S. soldiers assigned us a second vehicle of Afghan escorts, this one bringing up the rear of the convoy. But the front truck carrying our escorts stalled as we set out, and the Afghan soldiers declared it "suicidal" to continue. Now we're waiting it out in the bitter cold as the attacks continue around us. Hopefully, we'll be able to get back to Gardez once it's daylight.

Why were we here in the first place? We came to the base a few hours ago to get medical help for Kathleen Kenna, the Toronto Star journalist who was seriously injured in Monday's attack on our press convoy. The assault came as we were coming back from Zormat, in a hurry because our translator had overhead two men threatening to take us as hostages in retaliation for the American arrest of their commander, Faruki, on suspicion that he was an Al Qaeda supporter.

The convoy was widely-enough spaced that we didn't see the apparent grenade attack on Kenna's car, but we found out about her injuries when we drove past the ill-equipped Gardez hospital. The Gardez doctors were planning to transport her in a truck back to Kabul; we took her instead to the U.S. base in a walled desert compound south of the town. A U.S. military doctor began treating Kenna while she was still in the truck. Eventually, she was taken to the Gardez airfield, where we were told she'd be flown either to Bagram air base outside Kabul or to neighboring Uzbekistan. At that stage her condition wasn't fully stabilized, but she was able to talk to the soldiers caring for her.

Kenna wasn't the only patient needing care. While we waited, we saw several other wounded soldiers treated for injuries sustained during the ongoing offensive. The troops here are edgy, warning us to leave the area for our own safety. "There are a lot of bad guys," said one soldier. "If you are an American they will kill you."

The exact details of this weekend's attack are not yet known.. But its failure was brought into sharper focus by the fact that it seemed--at least on paper--a strategically well-conceived plan involving several commanders from the provinces to the north, east and south of Shahikot, operating in close contact with the Americans. Both the Pentagon and local Afghan officials in Gardez confirmed that three local commanders--Zakim Khan, General Zia and Kamal Khan Zadran--were all involved in the ground offensive. The melange is significant because at least one of the commanders--Zadran--is the brother of Padcha Khan Zadran, the ousted governor of Gardez who was beaten out of his government-appointed post after a battle with soldiers loyal to another warlord.

Kamal Khan's participation in the battle alongside other commanders openly hostile to his brother highlighted the Americans' ability to unite, at least temporarily, rival factions who have Al Qaeda as a common enemy. Even Padcha Khan is participating with the Americans, maintaining roadblocks in Khost province to safeguard against escaping Al Qaeda and Taliban forces, and allegedly contributing some 200 soldiers of his own to the effort.

But that fragile unity may not be enough to take out the hundreds of Al Qaeda fighters still holed up in Shahikot, estimated variously at between 500 and 3,000. Some officials in Gardez believe that there may be high-ranking Al Qaeda and Taliban officials among the fighters in Shahikot, including Jalluddin Haqqani and Saeef Rahman, two top Taliban officials on the U.S list of wanted terrorists. Taj Mohammed Wardak, the governor of Gardez, claims that the Qaeda fighters are now surrounded by the U.S led forces and that the 24-hour B-52 bombing campaign underway will finish them off within days. (Wardak attempted last week to negotiate Rahman out of the hills, but apparently Rahman just dug in deeper, along with several hundred Arabs, Chechens and Pakistanis also holed up there.)

Now, all negotiations are off. Some officials in Gardez say last Friday's retreat was a sign that the fighters are stronger than anyone had expected. "They've got enough arms to last a year," says Haji Sayeed Mohammed Isshaq, chief of security for Gardez, "They're fighting really desperately. That means they have some top guys there."

[EDITOR'S NOTE: Several hours after calling in this report, Johnson's convoy managed to return safely to Gardez.]