U.S. Heroes Whose Skills Spoke Volumes
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.
Because most of their work was secret, few of the men have received any public recognition.
Khan, now at Camp Lejeune, N.C., preparing for a battalion command, was recently permitted by military and State Department authorities to talk about some of his activities, but many others remain classified.
Another Marine, a mess hall clerk from Salt Lake City, also has emerged as a hero.
Cpl. Ajmal Achekzai was chosen in November to raise the American flag over the coalition base near the southern Afghan city of Kandahar. But until his recent return to his post at Camp Pendleton, the four months that he spent on the front lines interviewing prisoners and acting as a guide on forward reconnaissance missions were kept under wraps.
“Achekzai was the go-to guy,” said Marine Maj. Tom Impellitteri, who took the young clerk with him on the mission to capture Kandahar airport in November. “Every time we went into a new village he was the first to dismount and engage the locals.”
“They told me I was going to be in Afghanistan for three to five days; I ended up staying four months,” said Achekzai, who before Sept. 11 had been resigned to a career making sure fighting Marines had enough water and food packets.
Achekzai was a noncombatant specialist; they are referred to derisively in the Corps as POGs, or “People Other Than Grunts.” But in his first week in Afghanistan he was involved in a firefight with a convoy of fleeing Taliban.
The contributions of others, however, remain hidden.
Contacted at his suburban San Diego home, real estate broker Shah would not discuss details of his translation work at Bagram, where he lived in the intelligence compound known as “Motel 6.”
Shah, who grew up in Kabul, said he hopes to go back to Afghanistan for another tour of duty.
Chamberlin said she still works closely at the embassy with another Pakistani American whose name is kept secret because of the sensitive nature of his work. Like Khan, the young man, described by Chamberlin as being in his late 20s, is fluent in Pashto, the language spoken by nearly 40% of the Afghan population, including most of the Taliban. Only 6 years old when his family emigrated from Pakistan to the United States, he also speaks idiomatic American English and is comfortable with U.S. culture.
“Bottom line,” Chamberlin said, “is that these may be hyphenated Americans, but they are 100% American.”
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.
Khan, a schoolboy athlete in football and lacrosse, attended Avon Old Farms preparatory school in Avon, Conn., and later Babson College outside Boston, where he met his wife, Cheryl. After graduating with a business degree, Khan volunteered for military service.
“Now here comes the corny part,” Khan said in a recent interview. “America is my country of choice. I wanted to give something back for the privilege of being an American. No other country in the world would let an immigrant like me become an officer in its military and command its offspring.”
Khan has done well, rising to lieutenant colonel at a young age for the notoriously slow-to-promote Marines. He has won appointment to several of the prestigious command colleges, including the Naval War College, where he earned a master’s degree. He also contributes regularly to military publications, including an upcoming article on the anti-terrorism campaign in the Marine Corps Gazette.
Khan qualified for a program maintained by the armed services to identify soldiers with useful language and cultural skills. Between 1992 and 1993, he spent a year with the Royal Saudi Marines in Saudi Arabia, where he learned Arabic. In 1999 and 2000, he made two trips to Pakistan to help combat international drug trafficking.
The Sept. 11 attacks struck at the core of Khan’s moderate Islamic beliefs and the American system that had welcomed him.
“I just find it an abomination that these people had hijacked our religion and exploited illiterate and desperate people in that part of the world,” Khan said.
It was also personal. “My wife is Episcopalian. We have to honor each other, to follow the principle the United States abides by.” The couple has three children.
So it was with an evangelical zeal that Khan went to Pakistan. Chamberlin credits Khan with breaking down the mistrust between the Pakistani and American militaries following the imposition of sanctions against Pakistan for developing nuclear weapons. The ambassador and the Marine fasted together during the holy month of Ramadan and often broke fast together in the evenings.
Chamberlin turned to Khan to direct the rescue of eight Christian aid workers, including Americans Dayna Curry and Heather Mercer, who had been kept prisoner for months by the Taliban regime in Kabul. Working from the embassy in Islamabad, Khan organized their helicopter rescue, then took the pictures when the two young women were reunited with their parents.
“This came at a time we were all looking for something good to happen--and it did,” Khan recalled.
In January, while on assignment supervising security along the Pakistani-Afghan border, Khan found himself poised at the mouth of the legendary Khyber Pass, where he had stood on the first leg of his family flight to America.
“In 1971 we were fleeing, not knowing where we were going or when we would return,” he said. “I never imagined that it would take 30 years to come back to the same spot.”
Khan said he was struck by the sight of refugees massed at the border, just as he and his family had been three decades before.
“In a way, nothing had changed,” he said. “I could have very easily been any one of them. By the grace of God, and good fortune, I am an American.”
This is one in an occasional series chronicling untold stories from the war in Afghanistan.