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Author Robert Young Pelton is known for seeking danger, and in Afghanistan, he found it. Teamed with Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostumthe Northern Alliance commander who toppled the Taliban in the northand an elite team of Green Berets, Pelton was on hand for some of the war's most dramatic and critical moments to date.
* * * *As Robert Young Pelton photographed a truck filled with Taliban fighters on December 1, 2001, the shot and starving moaned and yelled and wept. Dead men were propped up to face the camera.
"That particular truck was a pretty horrific sight," the writer told Adventure Online during a January 2002 interview. Though he couldn't know it at the time, it was also the most remarkable of the truckloads of prisoners that arrived at northern Afghan warlord Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum's compound near Mazar-e Sharif.
As the writer reviewed his first round of photos days later, he was struck to see the blackened face of U.S. Taliban John Walker Lindh staring out at him from the far shadows. In later shots Lindh had secreted himself beneath a blanket. "He obviously didn't want to be seen," says Pelton.
It wasn't the last time Pelton saw Lindh, nor the last time Pelton's proximity to Dostum afforded him an insider's view of the U.S.-Afghan war machine.
ON TRAVELING WITH THE WARLORD'S COURT
In late November, having arranged to travel with Dostum and profile him for Adventure, Pelton crossed from Termiz, Uzbekistan, to Mazar-e Sharif. (Newly liberated from the Taliban by Dostum and his troops, Mazar was the first major city to fall to the Northern Alliance.)
Arriving in Mazar to meet Dostum, Pelton sensed a cautious euphoria. "In any liberated city," he says, "it's like getting hit by a bomb. You're thrilled that you're still alive, but then you realize your leg is blown off and you now have to deal with the realities of that."
Pelton spent the next several weeks observing the warlord and U.S. Special Forces (Green Berets) on and off duty, which included a lot of "sitting by the side of the road while Dostum negotiated with people."
Despite the region's ruined state, Pelton experienced a level of luxury he's unaccustomed to as the author of the World's Most Dangerous Places guidebooks. "I brought in my full combat gear, expecting to spend all my time in the mountains being shelled and hunted down by Taliban jets, and when I got there I was immediately popped into Dostum's official guesthouse," he says.
"The only downside ... is that sometimes you just want to sneak out and get into the action. But because I had bodyguards and because [Dostum's entourage] was terrified that I might be waylaid, killed, or kidnapped, they made sure that I was well protected at all times.
"Other than a few rockets flying around the house and exploding nearby, I absolutely had nothing to complain about. Every day Dostum would ask, How are you doing? How's the food? How are people taking care of you?'"
ON DOSTUM'S BAD REPUTATION
Though Dostum's name is almost always preceded in print by the seemingly oxymoronic "brutal warlord," Pelton paints a more benign portrait, calling the general "gentle" and "shy."
In one of his less gentle moments, Dostum came charging down to Pelton one night and said, "You will write this!"
"Excuse me?" Pelton replied.
"You will say, Gen. Rashid Dostum does not support the interim government.' OK, now read that back to me."
Pelton didn't write that"I don't take dictation"and Dostum may regret saying it. Not long after Pelton completed his Adventure article, interim-government leader Hamid Karzai named Dostum his deputy defense minister.
Dostum's appointment was met with understandable controversy, given his initial opposition to the interim government and his reputation for political infidelitya reputation Pelton disputes.
"Afghanistan is a collection of alliances. It's like Survivor on steroids," says Pelton. "You don't get to the top by being a traitor or by undermining people or backstabbing people. You get to the top by forming people around you who trust and support you."
ON WHAT MAKES A GREEN BERET
Among those people who came to trust and support Dostum were the 12 Green Berets assigned to the general. Pelton spent much of his several-week stay in their company and was "blown away" by what he saw.
"This was actually the first time I've been with the American military in combat situations," Pelton says. "Typically I'm [traveling] with rebel groups, so I'm usually hunted down by people like the Green Berets."
The U.S. team arrived in Afghanistan "absolutely unprepared," says Pelton. "They came in with no language skills, no understanding of the culture." And they were just the team for the job.
"It's their ability to learn, adapt, and react without overreacting or going off on a tangent or having preconceived ideas that makes the Green Berets so helpful and so useful in this type of conflict," says Pelton.
Asked about the popular image of the Special Forces soldier, Pelton bristles. "I think Rambo is kind of an insultthe idea that you have to be violent and use a weapon and be frustrated and messed up [to be a Green Beret]. These guys deal on a social level, they live with these people. They have to deal with women and children and tribal rivalries and all kinds of complex social issues.
"My opinion is that [the U.S.] did exactly the right thing and that the men they sent were exactly the right kind of men. The Green Berets don't come from Manhattan or Hollywood or Chicago. They come from the coal mines and the farms and the trailer parksthe working class.
"These are really pure, honest, hardworking men who have a pure love of their country. Their goal is to do their job, which is an amazing concept considering the conditions they work under."
ON WHAT MAKES A JOHN WALKER LINDH
Shortly after the convoy of wounded prisoners from the Qala Jangi fort uprising stopped at Dostum's compound near Mazar-e Sharif on December 1, one of Dostum's people ran to Pelton, yelling, "There's an American [prisoner] at the hospital!"
At the hospital Pelton coaxed the hypothermic prisoner into a video interview that began with the initially reticent prisoner revealing his name: "John Walker."
After Pelton's interview ran on CNN, John Walker (he would later use his father's last name, Lindh) became a household name. And the story of the 21-year-old Californian who studied Arabic in Yemen, attended a madrasah (religious school) in Pakistan, and joined the Taliban became the legend of the "American Taliban."
Peltonbased on his "limited experience with the lawyers, the parents, the representatives," and Lindhguesses at what motivated Lindh, and sketches a background leagues apart from those of the Green Berets Pelton so admires.
"John Walker came from a fairly well-to-do middle class family in Marin County," Pelton says. "Here was a man who came from a very permissive society where nothing was wrong, nothing was right, you could do your own thing, nothing really had consequences.
"He found ... meaning and purpose in a very strict and very regimented form of Islam that basically tells you how to do everything from eating to going to the bathroom to dressing yourself. I think he found comfort in that direction and the fact that there was a right and a wrong," Pelton speculates.
Lindh, in Pelton's judgment, was polite, apologeticand utterly out of his element. "Knowing fighters the way I do, I just felt that this guy was not a fighter. He seemed like he should have been at a poetry reading with a beret and a cigar pretending to be a communist or something."
ON LINDH'S FATE
On February 13, 2002, in a U.S. District Court, Lindh pled not guilty to aiding terrorists and conspiring to kill Americans.
Outside the courtroom, the wife of Johnny "Mike" Spannthe CIA operative who was killed in the Mazar-e Sharif prison riot after interrogating Lindhtold reporters: "We expect Mr. Walker [Lindh] to be held personally responsible. ... I should have preferred the death penalty."
Pelton argues that Lindh has already fashioned his own punishmentand that he was utterly useless to the Taliban. "How do you punish someone for trying to kill other Afghans in Afghanistan?" says Pelton. "He's already been punished outside of the law in terms that he'll be a pariah the rest of his life. He'll have to live with what he did for the rest of his life.
"He's basically caused damage to all the people that he associated himself with because he was misguided. The school [Lindh attended] in Yemen doesn't speak highly of him, the guy at the madrasah didn't understand why this grownup was sitting with kids learning to speak the Koran, the Taliban didn't want him. ... "
As for the terrorism charges, Pelton says Lindh "was not part of that world. ... He wanted to fight with the Taliban to create an Islamic state. None of those issues tie into what happened on September 11."
So how should U.S. law treat Lindh? "He should be punished for what he did, and the best thing he could probably do is to work with the federal government and international agencies and try to really help us understand who's out there and how and why these people come from all around the world to die in these godforsaken countries."
ON WAR AS ADVENTURE
"I think it's reassuring, and a little refreshing, to see an adventure magazine deal with real adventure, which to me is getting out there and learning about what's going on in the world," says Pelton.
Asked if he has any misgivings about labeling war as adventure, Pelton responds: "Whether you're in a fort being hammered by an AC-130 gunship or you're climbing a mountain or driving to work, the risk of death is always there. But if you can apply those risks toward learning something or helping somebody or getting a better understanding of how to stop conflict or liberating people, then that truly is an adventure.
"Anything that requires color-coordinated clothing isn't adventure. If you've got a return ticket, it ain't adventure.
"No one can argue that the Green Berets didn't have an adventure or that Dostum didn't have an adventure or that I didn't have an adventure. I'd just like to see adventure back to what it should be, which is something that's life or death but has a purpose to it.
"I want a 14-year-old kid to read this story and go, Damn, I want to be a Green Beret, because you can do good things and be adventurous. So little guys like Johnny Walker would become Green Berets instead of Taliban."
Ted ChamberlainRead an excerpt of Pelton's article. For the full story, pick up the March 2002 issue of National Geographic Adventure.
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Photographs by Robert Young Pelton; Pelton portrait by Ellen Hunter Mai
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