Distant lives come together on 9/11's front lines

Reuters News
|
Posted: Sep 07, 2011 4:29 AM
Distant lives come together on 9/11's front lines

By C. Bryson Hull and Saeed Achakzai

COMBAT OUTPOST PASHMUL SOUTH, Afghanistan/NORAK, Pakistan, (Reuters)- New Yorker Danny Sjursen's Afghanistan war ought to be personal. It's anything but.

The U.S. Army cavalry captain, from a family three generations deep in the New York City Fire Department, needs two hands to count the friends who died rescuing people from the wreckage of al Qaeda's attack on the World Trade Center's twin towers on September 11, 2001.

But too much time and two wars have passed between the day Sjursen, now 28, saw the towers fall while he was a cadet at the West Point U.S. Military Academy.

"When I see this place, I don't see the towers," he said, sitting inside the wooden walls of the B troop, 4-4 Cavalry Regiment's operations center in Pashmul South. Near the birthplace of the Taliban in Kandahar province, it is still one of Afghanistan's most violent areas for U.S. soldiers.

For him, there is little connection anymore between the war he is fighting and the retribution against the Taliban for harboring al Qaeda that was the original casus belli.

"My family sees it more than I do. They see it dead-on, direct. I'm a professional soldier. It's not about writing the firehouse number on the bullet. I'm not one for gimmicks."

A few hundred kilometers away, his enemy rests by a roadside, just across the Pakistani border. Fida Mohammed's seminal moment in jihad came when he was only 10 years old, from a man he was too young to know much about.

Osama bin Laden's deadly handiwork created excitement in his village in Pakistan. Mohammed, now 20 and a Taliban fighter, recalls people crowding around a man with a newspaper telling of the attacks in New York and Washington.

"Most of them were cursing America," Mohammed told Reuters in his village of Norak, 20 km (12 miles) from the Afghan border. "Very few people said it was not good because innocent people were killed."

Earlier that day at his madrasa, or religious school, the lesson was simple: the 9/11 attacks were America's punishment "for its crimes," and the beginning of its destruction.

JIHAD, AND ONLY JIHAD

Over his parents' objections, Mohammed soon began collecting clothes and food from people to help the Taliban.

"My aim is jihad and only jihad, and to defeat the infidels and drive them out of Afghanistan," said the strongly built, bearded Pakistani, who commutes to the war from his village.

Seven years passed before he was old enough to join up as a mujahideen. Even then, he had to sneak away, feigning plans to visit relatives, and his parents caught and tried to stop him.

"I told them in plain terms that jihad has become obligatory on all Muslims and I cannot give it up at any cost. Now I often go to Afghanistan for the jihad," he said.

Sjursen's call to war, too, came from school. He was sparring in boxing class, as a first-year cadet, when someone burst in shouting that the World Trade Center was on fire.

Only the second in his family to get a university degree, he excelled in his high school studies and followed "the old romantic reasons for wanting to be a soldier" to West Point. Suddenly those reasons become more personal.

His father worked across the street, but evacuated quickly. His Uncle Steve went missing for 24 hours, surfaced briefly and then went back into the ruins for five days, Sjursen said.

"He was digging the rubble for Marty," Sjursen said, referring to firefighter Marty Egan, his uncle's best friend who was discovered dead days later.

Cadet Sjursen knew eight firefighters from one station who had died, and even today he can recite the casualty numbers: 343 of New York's 11,000 firefighters, or about 3 percent.

"It was the single most emotional event. You know how it is in a blue-collar neighborhood. I was almost hoping the war would still be going on when I graduated in 2005," he said.

TALK OF WAR IS SWEET

Mohammed took to jihad in Afghanistan in 2008, migrating across the border for attacks and sometimes into Helmand province to pick poppies for pocket money, with the bulk of the profits from the opium sales going to finance the Taliban.

Barely a year after he joined jihad, he took two bullets in the arm during a firefight with Afghan troops that killed three of his comrades. That was barely a taste of the war.

"Talk of war is very sweet, but the situation on the battlefield is very bitter," Mohammed said, sipping from a glass of water as he recalled how an American helicopter rained death on his comrades a year ago.

He and about 60 other fighters were heading to attack a military post in southern Uruzgan province, when the chopper spotted them and unleashed its cannon. Mohammed and 20 others, lagging behind, dashed for life-saving cover in the bushes.

"There were many childhood friends among the 40 killed and that saddened me. I cried a lot that in just a few seconds so many Taliban mujahideen had been martyred. We collected their body parts with our hands and buried them there," he said.

Sjursen met death in the cauldron of Baghdad in 2006, where he took command of his first platoon during the U.S. surge to stabilize Iraq as it boiled in a bloody sectarian civil war.

"It was a bad time," Sjursen recalled, sitting in front of a bank of three computers inside his command center. "This place has nothing on that. The madness is lacking here."

Three of his men were killed and eight were wounded within the first 90 days of deployment. The wish for vengeance for 9/11 was swallowed by a greater violence.

"I never thought about 9/11 at all because I was too busy dealing with the day-to-day of fighting the civil war," Sjursen said. "It drove that gap between 9/11."

FARMBOYS WITH GUNS

The troop he commands, one of three in the area, spends its days fending off attacks from the Taliban, who merge into the scrubby farmlands just outside the concrete walls of his camp.

"It's farmboys picking up guns. How do you hate that? What do you do when you turn 15 or 18 here? You fight. Imagine if our country was at war since 1979?" Sjursen said, referring to Afghanistan's almost-constant state of conflict since mujahideen started attacking the occupying Soviet forces.

Marijuana, opium and grape crops and a deeply conservative attitude prevail outside, where Sjursen's troops work to stand up Afghan police and soldiers, a school and local government.

B Troop's base is smack in the middle of the original recruiting grounds of Taliban founder Mullah Omar, and miles further south than Soviet troops ever got.

Like many other Taliban leaders, Mohammed's commander comes from Kandahar. The war is turning in their favor, after a time when foreign troops inflicted heavy casualties, Mohammed said.

"We have restricted Americans and their forces to their bases," Mohammed said. "There is no dearth of Taliban, in whatever number we need. We get them easily."

With the end of 2014 the deadline for all foreign combat troops to pull out of Afghanistan, Sjursen can see an end to his wars. He will enrol for a master's degree later this year.

"We're tourists here. We're going home, but this is their life," Sjursen said.

Mohammed said he has had little time to think about his plans after the war, although he intends eventually to teach -- if the war ever ends. If foreign troops don't leave, Mohammed said: "I will keep up my jihad as long as I'm alive and until I embrace martyrdom."

(Additional reporting by Zeeshan Haider in Islamabad; Editing by Emma Graham-Harrison and John Chalmers)