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THE UNTOLD WAR

U.S. Heroes Whose Skills Spoke Volumes

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

May 25, 2002|RONE TEMPEST | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Several weeks after Sept. 11, U.S. diplomats in Islamabad began hinting that they had some special assets with linguistic skills embedded in the embassy's intelligence cell, including a field-grade military officer. It is becoming clear that the most important among them was Khan, who arrived here Oct. 8.

His contribution to the U.S. mission is evident in a five-page letter from embassy officials recommending that the 42-year-old Khan be awarded the Bronze Star for valor, one of the country's highest combat awards.

According to the document, a redacted copy of which was obtained by The Times, Afghans regularly came to the U.S. Embassy compound here offering "vital information on the location of terrorist elements and operational planning against Americans in Pakistan."

"Not only was Lt. Col. Khan the only American who could communicate with them," the document states, "he was the only American who had the ability to act on the information. For example, Lt. Col. Khan was involved in an interrogation concerning locations of possible Al Qaeda safehouses on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border."

The shortage of Pashto-speaking American intelligence agents was nothing new.

Former CIA official Frank Anderson said that even during the 1979-89 Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, when billions of dollars were poured into the anti-Soviet moujahedeen movement, the intelligence agency had only one Pashto speaker, a retired Army officer who learned the language on a military exchange assignment.

"The truth is that we never trained Pashto speakers," recalled Anderson, who directed the CIA's Afghan task force from the agency's Langley, Va., headquarters from 1987 to 1989. Instead, Anderson said during an interview in his Washington, D.C., consulting office, the intelligence agency relied almost exclusively on Pashto-speaking Pakistani military officers.

But after Sept. 11, this was not a comfortable arrangement for U.S. officials. Pakistan had been the fundamentalist Taliban regime's biggest supporter. Its most vociferous support often came from the many ethnic Pushtuns serving in the Pakistani army. This made Americans such as Khan critical to the anti-terrorism campaign.

When not working in the embassy intelligence cell, Khan was often out in the field on special assignments, sometimes working with Special Forces units. During the December to January hunt for Bin Laden in the mountainous Tora Bora region of eastern Afghanistan, Khan was assigned to take custody of 238 Al Qaeda fighters who had been captured trying to flee to Pakistan. It was then that he tackled the escapee.

The Bronze Star recommendation also cites Khan's participation in operations that remain classified. Two photographs obtained by The Times show Khan in the field, but the faces of his partners are obscured for security reasons.

"The whole experience was like living out a Tom Clancy novel," said Khan, reflecting on his 31-year journey from Pakistani schoolboy to American war hero.

Khan's family hails from a place not far from Pakistan's border with Afghanistan, near Tora Bora in the White Mountains south of Jalalabad. He belongs to the Afridi clan, a powerful Pushtun family known for its fighting skills.

His great-grandfather, grandfather and father were all military men who served in Kashmir during the British colonial era. A colorfully written recent book, "History of the Northern Areas of Pakistan" by Ahmad Hasan Dani, describes one of Khan's more famous uncles as a "stoutly built, short figure of indomitable courage and strength [that he] inherited from his ancestral Afridi stock of Tirah in Northwest Frontier Province but in whose veins also ran the blood of the land--mountain daring and wild hunting."

After siding with the successful 1947 Pakistani independence movement, the Khan family settled in the town of Abbottabad, where it founded the country's first commercial poultry farm and lived comfortably, allying politically with a succession of military rulers.

But when Gen. Yahya Khan was forced to step down in 1971, the family lost its political connections. Their home in Abbottabad was attacked by armed supporters of Pakistan's new civilian ruler, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto.

Khan, then 11, remembers being awakened by his pistol-packing father and told that they were leaving for Afghanistan. Using a forged passport, his father was able to sneak the family, including all six children, through the Khyber Pass to Kabul.

"I remember being afraid, but I also remember at the time thinking we were embarking on a great adventure," Khan recalled. "To reassure us, my mother kept telling us we were on our way to see Disneyland. But I didn't even know what Disneyland was."

A year of travel as political refugees took the family from Afghanistan to Spain, Britain and finally the United States. They settled in West Hartford, Conn., near the poultry company that had helped the family establish its farm in Pakistan.

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