Eight FBI agents took up residence Tuesday at the bombed-out Kandahar International Airport to interrogate Taliban and Al Qaeda prisoners, even as the first detainees arrived at a hastily built, heavily guarded jail.
Tom Knowles, the FBI supervising agent, said his team is looking for information about the Sept. 11 attacks, possible future assaults on the United States and the bombing of the destroyer Cole in Yemen last year.
Knowles said it is the first time since "chasing Nazis in South America during World War II" that the FBI has been in a foreign country on such an investigation "while the bombs were falling."
The airport, on the outskirts of this former Taliban stronghold in southern Afghanistan, is being used as a base of operations for Marines, other U.S. military personnel and several international forces.
On Tuesday, Marines at the airport raised a U.S. flag recovered by New York police from the World Trade Center. At the ceremony, Col. Andrew Frick, commander of the Marines' 26th Expeditionary Unit, thanked other U.S. armed services and America's international partners for their anti-terrorism efforts.
"Although they do it behind the scenes without the press," he said, "they're the heroes."
The Marines built the detention facility here to house several hundred prisoners before they are shipped elsewhere.
Knowles, chief of the FBI's violent-criminal apprehension program, said one reason the agency dispatched a team here is to avoid the possibility of bringing prisoners to the United States and then having them seek asylum. He indicated that the FBI is willing to pay for information and arrange for cooperative prisoners to travel to the U.S. for relocation.
"This is the home base, the backyard [of the terrorist movement]," Knowles said. "We're here to try to get our hands on as much as we can get. . . . This is a target-rich environment."
The prisoners who arrived Tuesday were led into a tent for examination by Navy doctors before being housed behind a barbed-wire fence ringed with guards. Fifteen prisoners captured in the battle for the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif had been brought to the facility by the end of the day.
The prisoners will receive special meals in accordance with Muslim dietary laws and will be given a warm place to sleep and medical care, the Marines said.
"Actually, they'll be treated better than some of our Marines here," said Capt. Tom Schmidt, an engineering officer who supervised the construction of the makeshift jail.
The detention facility will be guarded "with overwhelming force, both inside and outside," to prevent a repeat of a prison uprising near Mazar-i-Sharif that left a CIA officer dead, said Marine Maj. Ian Brasure, a legal officer.
Still to be determined is whether the detainees will be branded "battlefield detainees" or prisoners of war, who are covered by the 1949 Geneva Conventions. The former can be charged with crimes, but the latter cannot be.
The conventions has set out criteria for classifying someone as a POW: The person must have been part of an organized military group, must have worn an emblem, must have obeyed organized commands and must have obeyed the Geneva Conventions' rules of war.
Prisoner Status Not Yet Clear
Whether the Taliban or Al Qaeda, with their irregular structures and alleged penchant for brutality, will qualify for POW status is a sticky legal and political issue that the Marine Corps has yet to confront.
The Kandahar airport, once one of the best such facilities in the region--a symbol of an economically struggling country trying to reach out to the world--was seized by the Marines as a staging ground for military and humanitarian relief flights.
The Taliban, fearful and suspicious of modernity, let it decline. The terminal, with vaulted ceilings and marble floors, fell into disrepair. The rose gardens and manicured lawns deteriorated. The 10,000-foot runway, long enough for the largest jumbo jet, developed potholes.
And finally, as the Taliban fought to retain power here, the airport and its grounds became a killing field, the site of one of the last struggles pitting Taliban and Al Qaeda forces against the opposition fighters who were backed by U.S. warplanes.
Now, much of the work here involves clearing away hundreds of mines--Italian, Russian and Chinese, some made of plastic to avoid detection, others buried in such a way that they rise slowly to the surface before exploding.
"Working in a minefield is one of the few things that can't be replicated very well in training," said Capt. Dan Greenwood, one of the several hundred Marines here from Camp Lejeune, N.C. "The young Marines have to learn by doing, and we tell them to be extraordinarily careful."
Three Marines have already been injured when one stepped on a mine. The most seriously hurt lost a foot.
Just how long the Marines will be here is unknown. Chief Warrant Officer Tom Hoffman joked that he knows when it will be time for the Marines to depart: "When the airport opens a Starbucks, then I'll know it's time for us to leave."
The push into Kandahar, nearly 500 miles from the sea, shows the Marines' ability to operate far beyond what is considered their normal range of 200 to 300 miles inland. Marines from the 26th Expeditionary Unit are also in Kabul, the capital, and Marines from the 15th Expeditionary Unit at Camp Pendleton have set up Camp Rhino, southwest of here.
"The Marines do windows," Lt. Col. Jerome Lynes said. "America needs something done--an embassy reopened, an airport seized, humanitarian operations, operations at sea--we'll do it. Marines do windows."