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U.S. Heroes Whose Skills Spoke Volumes

THE UNTOLD WAR

This is one in an occasional series chronicling untold stories from the war in Afghanistan.

May 25, 2002|RONE TEMPEST | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The first time he saw the Khyber Pass leading into Afghanistan, he was a frightened 11-year-old refugee from Pakistan.

The next time he saw those sheer rock walls--31 years later--he was a seasoned U.S. Marine Corps officer engaged in the hunt for Osama bin Laden.

Of all the untold tales of the U.S. war against terrorism, one of the most remarkable is about a ramrod-straight Marine lieutenant colonel named Asad Khan. Born in Pakistan and raised in the United States, a Muslim married to an Episcopalian from Connecticut, Khan was assigned to classified duties with the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad from early October until March.

Fluent in Urdu, Pashto and Arabic, Khan quickly became one of the most important figures in the anti-terrorism campaign, alternating between delicate diplomatic duty here in the Pakistani capital and dangerous Special Forces field missions in Afghanistan.

"His work was absolutely pivotal," U.S. Ambassador Wendy Chamberlin said in a recent interview.

In the frantic days following Sept. 11, Khan was one of a handful of Afghan and Pakistani Americans who helped plug a huge hole in U.S. intelligence operations, working the front lines as interpreters, interrogators and liaison officers. They allowed the U.S. to overcome a major disadvantage by calling on its richly diverse citizenry.

Khan worked with the Pakistani military to set up U.S. bases, interviewed Afghan informants about Al Qaeda operations, coordinated the rescue of American aid workers, led a State Department diplomatic team into Kabul to secure the embassy, and participated in several missions with Special Forces outside Kandahar.

When a key U.S. Embassy intelligence official died of a heart attack, Khan, who has the highest possible security clearances, took over his job.

And when an Al Qaeda suspect captured in the hunt for Osama bin Laden broke out of his plastic handcuffs and attempted to escape, Khan tackled and restrained him until he could be subdued by military police.

The overall number of Afghan and Pakistani Americans involved in the war effort has not been released, although their recruitment by CIA and Defense Department agencies has been very public. They range from the very high-profile Zalmay Khalilzad, the former Rand Corp. analyst who serves as President Bush's special envoy to Afghanistan, to Wahid Shah, a Southern California real estate broker who worked as a Dari-language translator for the U.S. military at Bagram air base north of Kabul, the Afghan capital.

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