Our first destination is Dandar Kili, a village of woodcutters where a group of 50 al Qaeda fighters, many of them frostbitten and wounded, had staggered over the mountains from Tora Bora in December 2001. Sipping green tea in the house of a 100-year-old tribal chieftain, Tajmir Daradar, we ask about that story and are met with stony silence. Later, in the next village down the valley, we find out why.
"Did you notice that in Dandar all the houses were new?" says one villager, Noor Mohammad. "That's because we burned the old ones to the ground." Apparently the al Qaeda fighters had indeed spilled into Dandar and were sheltered in the village mosque. Then the old chieftain Daradar himself had rushed in, warning that the Pakistani Army was on its way and urging the fugitives to stash their guns and hide. The al Qaeda men complied.
"It was a trick," explains Noor Mohammad. "The people of Dandar robbed the Arabs of everything, all their belongings, their dollars. The Arabs came to us limping barefoot through the snow. Even their socks had been stolen." This mistreatment of al Qaeda was seen as such a violation of the Pashtun code of sanctuary that the surrounding villages gathered a 4,000-man army, or lashkar, and attacked Dandar, burning down the houses, killing their livestock.
And what happened to the al Qaeda fighters?
"You have to understand," says Noor Moham-mad, eyeing me coolly. "If an American soldier comes to my house asking for protection, I will give it to him. And if Osama comes, I will also give him refuge. This is our Pashtun way." That was as close as I got to an answer.
On the road back to Peshawar, at twilight, we stop at the hillside grave of an al Qaeda man. His body had been found by a shepherd boy and buried by villagers. Flags on sticks—signifying a martyr's burial—snap in the wind, and jagged spears of lightning crash around us with supernatural accuracy. I feel like an intruder, and half-expect bin Laden himself to come gliding down the hill.
During our travels, we saw over a dozen al Qaeda graves. They have become places of pilgrimage for the Pashtun: Women pray there to give birth to brave sons; others honor the fallen fighters in florid poetry, just as they did the mujahideen who died battling the Soviets in Afghanistan.
That decade-long conflict, sparked by the 1979 Soviet invasion, was a tipping point of modern history. To fight its Cold War archenemy, the U.S. made a covert alliance with Pakistan's intelligence services to run the war. Pakistan funneled guns, money, and eventually Stinger surface-to-air missiles to a group of Afghan rebels, who saw the struggle as a jihad, or holy war, to expel the Soviet infidels from Muslim lands. Soon other Muslim countries, especially Saudi Arabia, began exporting fundamentalist clerics into the Pashtun tribal regions, along with Arab volunteers for the war, including bin Laden.
Meanwhile, independent-minded Afghan elders who resisted Pakistani control were assassinated, one by one, by Pakistan's agents. This weakened the tribes' social order and gave rise, in 1994, to the band of Pashtun warrior-zealots known as the Taliban, or "students," who came out of Pakistan's Saudi-funded religious schools. Supported by Pakistan, the Taliban put together an army, marched on Kabul, and seized effective control of the Afghan government in 1996.
After 9/11 most of these black-turbaned Taliban and their al Qaeda mentors fled back into Pakistan's tribal area, beyond the reach of U.S. warplanes. Using trails known by smugglers and mujahideen who had fought the Soviets, they also launched cross-border raids against the U.S.-led coalition forces, which continue to this day—aided and abetted, some say, by supporters in the Pakistani military.
There are persistent reports of al Qaeda fighters in the Mohmand Agency west of Peshawar, so Reza and I set out to visit that remote region, keeping our eyes peeled for one very tall Arab and his entourage. We have an entourage of our own, including our six bodyguards and a Pakistani Army intelligence officer who's been assigned by Brigadier Shah to "protect" us. Our friend Rahimullah will follow the next morning.
On the steep mountain road we encounter a long procession of gaily painted flatbed trucks carrying huge boulders of white marble from a quarry. This marble—and opium—are two main sources of income for the local people. Later we pull over at a shrine to a Pashtun freedom fighter and outlaw, Haji Turangzai, who was sheltered from the British by local tribesmen for nearly 20 years. In the early 20th century, the Brits mounted 17 operations to grab him and failed every time. The bin Laden of his day, Turangzai died in his sleep at age 81.
Verses of the Koran, written in slivers of black glass, surround Turangzai's expansive marble mausoleum. Through an arched window I see a hard-eyed, turbaned man, possibly Taliban, lurking in the shadows of a mulberry tree, watching me as I watch him. He is gone when we leave the shrine.
The next day Rahimullah arrives late, with six bullet holes in his pickup truck. Just 20 minutes out of Peshawar, two gunmen had stepped out of a sugarcane field onto the road and flagged down his vehicle. It was either a robbery or a kidnapping, but the driver didn't wait to find out. He sped away, and the gunmen opened fire. Later, the police told Rahimullah, "Are you crazy? We never go on that road. It's too dangerous!"
Mohmand is not a friendly place either. Nearly every house is a castle built on steeples of rock, and every farmer toiling in his field has a rifle strapped to his back. Still, the rules of hospitality apply, and one day a local chieftain named Iftikhar Chandar invites us, and our police escort, to his house for lunch. Rope-strung cots are set out in a courtyard under the shade of an ancient grapevine arbor, and we feast on roasted goat and okra. Bees drone lazily around us.