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Former al Qaeda Training Site Now a Ghost Town

By Pfc. Vincent C. Fusco, USA
Special to American Forces Press Service

KANDAHAR AIRFIELD, Afghanistan, Oct. 28, 2005 – The compound within the 10-foot-tall mud walls resembles a basic training-meets-OK Corral ghost town.

Click photo for screen-resolution image
Army Sgt. Sean Oeder (left) a dog handler with the 67th Mine Dog Detachment, and Army Sgt. 1st Class Mike Ford, an operations noncommissioned officer with A Company, 391st Engineer Battalion, examine a crater in the ruins of a bombed-out building outside the Tarnak Farms terrorist training site. Army photo

(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.

Barbed wire is snarled around posts low to the dirt, a concrete tunnel keeps vermin out of the sun, and small ramps and stairs to nowhere stand like monoliths.

This place is known as Tarnak Farms, a deserted al Qaeda training outpost just outside Kandahar Airfield that was bombed at the beginning of the global war on terror. If the site appears familiar to some, it should be. Released al Qaeda training videos featured anti-coalition militia training there. It was the third-largest al Qaeda training center in Afghanistan, next to Tora Bora in Nangrahar province and Zaewara in Paktia province.

"When I got here, I did a little research and discovered that Tarnak Farms was the headquarters for al Qaeda and could possibly even be where al Qaeda got its name," said Army Sgt. 1st Class Todd Hutchings, a DuPont, Wash., native. "It means 'the base.'"

The area surrounding Tarnak Farms has since been converted into a firing range. Hutchings, a force protection noncommissioned officer with Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 173rd Airborne Brigade, has been to the site numerous times in support of range operations.

Afghan National Army Brig. Gen. Mohammad Yosuf, a deputy garrison commander in Kandahar, said the story of this dusty base began about 45 years ago, when a canal from the Tarnak River brought water and farming to the area. When Soviet forces came in 1979, the site was turned into the housing and training station for the 3rd Afghan Division, and a base for the communist regime.

In 1989, after fighting the Afghan resistance, or mujahiddin, the Soviets withdrew and the fate of the country fell into the hands of militiamen. In 1992, after the fall of Najibullah Ahmadzai, one of the last presidents of Afghanistan during the period of the communist Democratic Republic of Afghanistan, Tarnak Farms and the 3rd Division fell into mujahiddin control, said Yosuf. Khan Agha assumed command of the site and the division, and another mujahiddin commander, Haji Ahmad, took over the airfield. The Afghan Infantry Division 7, another mujahiddin unit, came from Ghazni to occupy the nearby Soviet barracks.

By 1994, the mujahiddin had come into great power through civil war. Afghanistan was carved up among various factions, with many mujahiddin commanders establishing themselves as virtual warlords. The citizens of Kandahar City lived in fear of murder, rape, looting and extortion, said Yosuf.

A dozen former mujahiddin soldiers and refugees in Pakistan took up arms to liberate Kandahar from anarchy. Most of them were religious students who earned the title, "Talib" through study. These liberators of Kandahar became known as the Taliban, meaning "students" or "seekers of knowledge." The Taliban were soon supported by Osama bin Laden as part of the al Qaeda terror network.

In 1994, al Qaeda moved into the Soviet barracks and Tarnak Farms, and used the compound as a training area for soldiers. The neighboring airfield became a Taliban operations base.

During the al Qaeda occupation of Tarnak Farms, interaction was strict; no civilians or even Taliban fighters were allowed near the facility. Many believe that the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon were planned and rehearsed at Tarnak Farms. According to Yosuf, the site was only one of many camps bin Laden frequently visited over the six years before the attacks to coordinate his personal plan.

After the August 1998 bombing of U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya, President Clinton ordered cruise missile attacks against suspected terrorist training camps. Bin Laden survived the attacks and continued to hide out in the country. He probably did not stay in one place for two nights, said Yosuf, and stayed in a province for only five days at a time.

Bombing raids and ground troops drove the anti-coalition militia out of the area by Dec. 7, 2001. Tarnak Farms was deserted, and the building on the airfield known as Taliban's Last Stand earned its name.

About 2,000 fighters led by ANA Gen. Gul Agha Sherzai were part of the ground offensive, with team of about 30 coalition Special Forces troops coordinating close air support.

An estimated 450 fighters were in the area during the bombing raids. Nearly 200 insurgents were killed or arrested by the coalition along the highway outside of the airfield alone.

When the new Afghan government formed, Infantry Division 7 moved to patrol the Pakistan border. Mullah Sayed Mohammad became the new division commander, and the unit, along with others left in the command of militiamen, was demobilized. Today, Sherzai is the governor of Nangrahar province and an advisor to Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

Tarnak Farms is still a concern for insurgent activity and is patrolled constantly by coalition forces. In 2002, an unfortunate accident of fratricide occurred at the range when the pilots of two U.S. F-16s mistakenly believed a Canadian night-fire exercise to be surface-to-air fire from anti-coalition militia. One of the pilots "rolled in self-defense" and released a 500-pound bomb upon the troops, killing four and wounding eight others.

Yosuf has been living in Kandahar province for about the last 30 years, and piloted jets in various incarnations of the Afghan air force. For Afghans like him, the desertion of Tarnak Farms has brought a new peace to the land.

"Today, any Afghan who steps out of his house can see, can feel, freedom," said Yosuf. For servicemembers like Hutchings, "the reason for the global war on terror was born at Tarnak Farms." "When you're walking around in there taking pictures of the wreckage, you're walking in the same spots that hundreds of wannabe-terrorists walked, trained and died," said Hutchings.

(Portions of this article were compiled from afghanland.com, an Afghan history, culture and entertainment resource. Army Pfc. Vincent C. Fusco is assigned to the 20th Public Affairs Detachment.)

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