Tea with one lump, three agents, and a job offer
Inside the dimly lit tent, the three US intelligence officials made it abundantly clear they didn't want the ensuing discussion to go beyond the gray canvas flaps. One of the men ran his index finger across his throat to make the point that there could be retribution if the secret got out.
"Let's be clear from the start, none of this goes beyond our base," he told Lutfullah Mashal, who has been my interpreter, colleague, and loyal confidante for the past five months while I've reported from both Afghanistan and Pakistan. Mr. Mashal is an Afghan, an intrepid reporter who formerly worked for the Kabul Times. He has penetrated no fewer than three Al Qaeda bases in recent months and put his life on the line for news stories on several occasions.
Mashal says he was quite surprised when, a day earlier, several American men in dark glasses and plain clothes, whom he met while translating the complaints of a Pathan tribal elder as a special favor, invited him to tea.
American military and civilian intelligence officers are keen to find a few good Afghans to help them in their hunt for Al Qaeda, and Mashal - fluent in English, Farsi, Pashto, and Arabic - must have seemed like a good fit.
As the job interview continued, the US intelligence officials explained that it had been extremely difficult for them to find good English-to-Pashto and Pashto-to-English translators. "We ask people to 'please go up that mountain', and they translate it, 'please go climb a mountain,' " complained one official.
In eastern Afghanistan, as elsewhere in the country, there are plenty of Afghans anxious to work closely with the American military - even with the CIA. For some, the lure is pure patriotism, others are drawn by rumors of big paychecks.
Take Mohamad Anwar, who works in the Khost government's "military commission," which deals with intelligence matters on a local level in eastern Afghanistan. He accosted a Western reporter recently with the following request: "Can you give me a letter of recommendation for the American equivalent of the ISI?" he asked. The ISI is Pakistan's powerful intelligence service, which worked closely with the CIA in Afghanistan during the Soviet occupation.
Mr. Anwar has kept copious notes about the movements and activities of the Al Qaeda organization - long before the US military arrived here. He knows interesting details like which doctors in town treated senior Al Qaeda members for illnesses and which "safe houses" were used to spirit members to safety in Pakistan.
But Anwar also feels that his own military associates don't pay enough attention to the information he is gathering, and he believes it can - possibly - be more helpful to the CIA than it is to local warlords.
Though the US military and the CIA have remained highly secretive about their operations in Afghanistan, several events in the Khost area suggest that the CIA is working closely with US special forces on the ground. On Jan. 4, when the first US soldier was killed by "unfriendly fire," a CIA officer who accompanied him also suffered unspecified injuries, according to the Pentagon.
The team, also accompanied by about 30 armed Afghans, had gone to view a mosque that had been bombed by a US plane at the end of the Muslim month of Ramadan. It was a risky venture. Next to the mosque, villagers had built a memorial to the 63 "victims," half of whom were Arab nationals, according to Afghan military sources.
In mid-January, several American men in civilian clothes were seen arriving at the Khost airport. In addition to rooting out Al Qaeda members on the ground, US officers are keen to gather as much intelligence as possible about the former activities of the terrorist network. Several US officers visited a chemical weapons facility in Khost last week, according to Afghans who led them there. One of the Afghans, the town security chief, said the US officers provided him with an envelope that contained 10 crisp $100 bills.
When Mashal arrived Tuesday for his interview, a few soldiers at the gate were feeding peanuts to a pet monkey they had purchased from a local truck driver. Inside the airport terminal, US special forces were racing around, putting things back in order. More than a dozen of their colleagues had been injured when a helicopter landed nose first beside three dozen downed Russian transport planes at the edge of the runway. The road around the airport had been blocked for local traffic, apparently to avoid excessive gawking at the upturned chopper.
The three American intelligence officers had not actually told Mashal that he was in line for a job offer. Indeed, he'd gone to the airport on a special mission (and at my request) as a news reporter to have a look at the secretive US base in Khost that has been the jumping off spot for numerous search and destroy missions in a part of Afghanistan still peppered with Al Qaeda cells.
Mashal is a jocular 33-year-old man with an eye for detail. As the discussion proceeded, he soon suspected that it must be his language abilities that had these men so keen to have him on their side.
"You'll be paid $250 a day, and do you have a car?" asked a 40-something US officer.
"No," Mashal replied
"No problem. We'll give you one," the officer said.
Mashal was a little taken aback by the salary offer, which made his newspaper earnings look miniscule. Moreover, most interpreters at the US military and intelligence base at Khost receive no more than $500 per month.
A tall, bearded recruiter, who sat against the tent wall, switched back and forth between Arabic and English as he explained the work. "We must warn you, some of the work is rather dangerous."
Mashal had been musing at the crashed chopper on the runway and worrying that his work might involve hopping around the country at night in one or another kind of US flying machine. It was, he explained later, what worried him most about such work.
"I suppose you know why we are here don't you?" asked another intelligence official.
"To hunt Al Qaeda," Mashal said.
"That's right," the officer replied.
Mashal, a loyal Afghan alarmed at the possibility of a Taliban comeback in his homeland, did want to know how long the American special agents planned to stick around.
"We are not here to occupy the country," said one. "We'll hire you for at least three months."
Thirty minutes into the interview, and after three separate mug shots, another man in plain clothes who carried an M-16 machinegun ducked into the tent.
"We've discovered that you are currently working with a reporter," he said, disapprovingly. Several of the officers stepped out of the tent to consult one another. (The CIA has a policy against using journalists. And reputable Western news media will not hire or use anyone who is employed by any government agency.)
When they returned, the tone of the conversation changed, and the three men reminded Mashal that nothing was to go beyond the tent. One officer still sounded interested. He had said he had read a recent story - maybe the one about an unintended encounter with renegade Al Qaeda fighters near a remote mountain pass last week.
The chief recruiter frowned, but forged ahead. He was still interested. "Please come again tomorrow, and we'll talk. We can't hire you, though, if you are already working for someone else. We'll need a letter signed by your previous employer, saying you no longer work for them."
Mashal - after very brief consideration - decided that working with US intelligence wasn't his cup of tea.
He said after the interview: "I'm afraid that when they are through with me, they might think I know too much and then they'll want to get rid of me."
I assured Mashal that's the stuff of movies, that I've heard of no such cases.