U.S. forces in Afghanistan on Christmas alert
Wednesday December 26, 12:15 AM
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. military said on Tuesday it had reminded its forces in Afghanistan to stay alert for possible attacks that could be timed to coincide with Christmas Day.
The Central Command, which is running the war against terror suspect Osama bin Laden and his Taliban allies, "re-emphasized the necessity for vigilance to all its forces for Christmas Day," said Lieutenant Colonel Martin Compton, a spokesman at the command's MacDill Air Force base headquarters in Tampa, Florida.
But he said Christmas was shaping up as a routine day in the U.S.-led drive to capture or kill bin Laden and surviving members of his al Qaeda network and their Taliban militia hosts in Afghanistan.
The United States blames bin Laden for the September 11 attacks that killed more than 3,000 people at New York's World Trade Center, the Pentagon and on a flight that crashed in Pennsylvania.
"Nothing unique. Nothing extraordinary," Compton said when asked to describe the situation on the ground in the campaign that began on October 7. "We're just doing our job, remaining vigilant. We're prepared to react to whatever comes up."
No airstrikes took place on Monday though U.S. warplanes had been aloft in case they were called on to strike targets or support ground troops, the Central Command spokesman said.
A U.S. B-52 heavy bomber hit a Taliban ammunition bunker north of Kandahar on Sunday, setting off secondary explosions, and a nearby suspected Taliban cave complex, Compton said.
He said plans were still under way for a fresh thrust into caves and tunnels in the eastern Tora Bora area, where al Qaeda fighters made a last stand and where bin Laden was last reported to have been sighted.
Wednesday December 26, 12:32 AM
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. President George W. Bush reached out on Christmas Day to grief-stricken Americans who lost friends and family in the September 11 attacks and the war in Afghanistan, and urged them to find "comfort and hope" during the holidays.
"This Christmas finds many facing hurt and loss, especially the families of terror victims and of our young men killed in battle," Bush said on Tuesday in his Christmas message to the nation.
"America grieves with you, and we hope you'll especially find the comfort and hope of Christmas," he added.
Bush, who spent the holiday with family at the Camp David presidential retreat, also thanked U.S. troops serving in Afghanistan and elsewhere.
"Even in this time of war, we pray for peace on Earth and goodwill toward men, and we continue to ask God's blessings on the United States," said Bush, who thanked troops for their service in a series of Christmas Eve phone calls.
Bush called the troops ahead of a new push by U.S. and allied forces into caves and tunnels in eastern Afghanistan as the hunt for Osama bin Laden intensified. The United States accuses the Saudi-born exile of masterminding the September attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
In Islamabad, Kenton Keith, a spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition, said "it's quite possible" bin Laden was killed in recent bombing. But a defence official in Washington said: "The hunt continues."
Afghan govt readies army, bin Laden still unseen
Tuesday December 25, 11:36 PM AFP
Afghanistan's fledgling government started laying the groundwork for the creation of a new volunteer army, ending the long practise of forcing men and boys to arms during the nation's decades of war.
Jittery nations waited to see if the Christmas holiday would occasion fresh terror attacks as US investigators looked into whether a man who boarded a US flight carrying explosives was working alone or as part of a group.
Fears of new attacks in the wake of the September 11 have not been eased by the failure to find the alleged terror mastermind Osama bin Laden, despite a relentless search in the wilds of Afghanistan.
The new Kabul government of Hamid Karzai, installed Saturday after a US bombing campaign and US-backed Afghan forces helped topple the hardline Taliban militia last month, on Tuesday began preparing a new national army.
Top mujahedin commander Atta Mohammad told AFP that troops would be volunteers, effectively ending the long-standing practice of forcing men and boys to fight.
"After the establishment of the interim administration a new chapter has been opened in our history, so we must have a new army as well," the senior Northern Alliance commander said from near the city of Mazar-i-Sharif.
The government on Monday tapped Abdul Rashid Dostam as deputy defence minister, making way for the veteran commander who had been sharply critical of the distribution of power in Karzai's UN-supported government.
Dostam, an ethnic Uzbek, had expressed anger over the make-up of the interim government, saying it was weighted in favour of the ethnic Tajik members of the Northern Alliance which routed the Taliban regime.
His move into the government fold is seen as defusing the threat of opposition from Afghanistan's notoriously combative factions and allowing Karzai to get on with the massive job of rebuilding the country.
Atta said professional military officers had been appointed to assist Army Chief General Asif Dilawar who is heading a commission charged with establishing the force.
In the bombed-out capital Kabul, signs of Christmas made a slight reappearance after five years of rule by the extreme Islamic fundamentalist Taliban.
Fir trees decorated with coloured ribbon and paper chains were being sold in the streets, and the contingent of journalists, aid workers and foreign troops were preparing make-shift Christmas dinners.
But with the whereabouts of bin Laden still unknown, the world looked anxiously to developments in the United States, where a man was under investigation for allegedly trying to blow up a US jet liner.
Investigators said Monday they were probing whether the man, who used three different names, was acting alone or with others when he allegedly tried to blow up the Paris-to-Miami flight of an American Airlines jet on Saturday.
Though the suspect was charged under the name of British passport holder Richard C. Reid, 28, investigators say the probe into his true identity is continuing.
The suspect, charged with interfering with a flight crew, could face further charges as agents probe whether he was linked to any outside groups.
Reid allegedly attempted to ignite explosives in his shoes, and it was not clear how he had managed to evade security at Charles de Gaulle airport outside Paris. The airport introduced tighter security measures Monday.
The tall, lanky, long-haired suspect has alternately identified himself as Sri Lanka-born Tariq Raja, born in 1973, and as Abdel Rahim, a name reflecting his conversion to Islam, French police have said.
Authorities in Colombo denied he was a Sri Lankan national and his passport, obtained three weeks earlier in Brussels from the British consulate, bears his picture and names him as Richard Colvin Reid, also born in 1973.
"At this point in time, the information we have is that the defendant is Richard C. Reid, traveling on a British passport," US Attorney Michael Sullivan told journalists after the suspect appeared in court for the first time for a five-minute hearing.
Asked whether the probe had established whether Reid acted alone, FBI special agent Charles Prouty said: "We are considering every possibility."
The incident revived fears of new attacks on US and Western targets after the September 11 attacks blamed on bin Laden, a Saudi-born dissident who has gone missing despite an intense search inside Afghanistan.
Some 2,000 fighters from bin Laden's al-Qaeda network, who were sheltered in Afghanistan by the Taliban, are believed to have escaped from the US-led military campaign which toppled the hardline militia.
US warplanes have been continuing raids on the country in an effort to root out bin Laden and his followers.
The United States is attempting to question captured Taliban and al-Qaeda members on the whereabouts of bin Laden as well as Mullah Mohammad Omar, the Taliban supreme leader who has also not been found.
New Afghan leader Karzai has vowed to clear the nation of all terrorism and pledged to hand over bin Laden if he is found
Tuesday December 25, 9:05 PM
KABUL (Reuters) - Afghanistan's new education chief took the helm of his ministry on Tuesday with the daunting task of rebuilding a school system from scratch with no budget, few qualified teachers and only one telephone.
After 23 years of war, Afghanistan's schools have been stripped bare of desks and teaching materials, most qualified teachers have fled abroad and those remaining have not been paid for at least six months.
Literacy rates are near the bottom of the global scale and women, the backbone of the teaching profession, were banned from working under the Taliban's rigid Islamic rule.
"It's a tremendous and daunting task," said education minister Rasul Amin, an academic who returned from 21 years in exile in Pakistan and Australia to take the job.
"We have lost whole generations who just spent their time fighting," he said.
"We don't have desks for the students, we don't have trained teachers, we need to provide materials for reading."
Amin formally took up his post on Tuesday at a simple ceremony attended by his 400-odd staff in the ministry, a vast Soviet-style building full of cob-webbed offices, broken windows and long, empty corridors.
"There is one telephone, which I think is working," said Amin, who is staying in a hotel until he can find a house.
Asked if the ministry had any money, Amin consulted his deputy. "None," was the reply.
STARTING FROM SCRATCH
On Wednesday, the new ministry will hold its first meeting to discuss how to rebuild an education system from scratch.
The priorities, Amin says, are to rebuild schools and "just to collect the children".
"The kids should come back to school because they have been deprived for a long time," he said.
Amin will also oversee the delicate task of re-introducing education for girls, who were forbidden from attending school under the Taliban's strict interpretation of Islamic law.
"There will be no discrimination between boys and girls," he said. "But in some places, even if you open a school for girls, their parents won't let them attend. I know my society, I know how conservative they are."
Women would be allowed to teach in all schools, but boys and girls would remain segregated up until university, he said.
"This is a very sensitive subject, no doubt," he said.
"You can't impose a secular education system on Afghanistan overnight."
WOMEN BACK AMIN
Women teachers who attended the welcoming ceremony backed Amin's proposals.
"We cannot introduce mixed schools overnight," said Pariwin Nasiri, who ran an underground home school for girls under the Taliban and taught her students to sew secret pockets in their clothes to hide pens and books.
"We must move step by step," said Nasiri, a literature graduate from Kabul University who lost her job as a teacher when the Taliban took over the capital in 1996.
Nasiri was one of about 20 women teachers, with faces unveiled and wearing make-up, who presented Amin with a bunch of flowers at the welcoming ceremony.
"School buildings must be repaired and new books should be published because the few books we have are too old and boring for students" she said.
"We need more experienced teachers and a proper salary," said Nasiri, who earns about one million afghanis ($40) per month at her private home school.
WORKING FOR FREE
But until aid money starts to fill the interim government's coffers, even Amin will work for free.
"They haven't got their salaries for the last six months," he said. "I am just thankful that they stayed here. When people are living without a salary, I must also be without."
It is a strange contrast for a man who has spent the last 21 years shuttling between the Pakistani city of Peshawar, where he ran the Afghanistan Study Centre, and Melbourne, Australia, where his children live.
Amin fled Afghanistan after he was arrested by the communist government in 1979 while teaching sociology at Kabul University.
When he was offered the position of minister during U.N.-backed talks in Bonn to establish an interim government, Amin says he felt overwhelmed by the enormity of the task.
"But if you are fighting for something, if you are dreaming for something, and you find it, then you must be happy," he said.
Tuesday December 25, 8:03 PM AFP
BEIJING (Reuters) - China, worried over its waning influence in Central Asia, said on Tuesday it will host a meeting with foreign ministers of Russia and Central Asian states next month to discuss Afghanistan's future and the war on terrorism.
The ad hoc ministerial meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, which also includes Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, was slated for January 7 in Beijing, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Zhang Qiyue said.
The meeting would address the struggle against religious extremism, separatism and terrorism in each of the member states as well, Zhang told a news conference without giving details.
The Shanghai Cooperation Organisation was established in June when Uzbekistan joined the Central Asian security group, previously known as the Shanghai Five.
Founded as a body to broker border disputes between China and ex-Soviet Central Asian states, the group has shifted its focus towards fighting Islamic militants in the region. It plans to establish a regional anti-terrorist centre in Kyrgyzstan.
China blames Muslim separatists from the Uighur ethnic group in its far western region of Xinjiang for a string of bombings and assassinations over the past decade and has linked them to the war on terror.
In October, China's parliament, the National People's Congress, ratified the Shanghai Convention on Combating Terrorism, Separatism and Extremism, concluded in June with the other members of the organisation.
China is concerned about the heightened U.S. presence in the Central Asian region and has said it is interested in playing a role in the reconstruction of war-ravaged Afghanistan.
The Foreign Ministry's Zhang said Chinese diplomats in Kabul had met with members of the new government, including interim leader Hamid Karzai, and were preparing to open the embassy there as soon as possible.
China's mission in Kabul has been closed since 1993.
KABUL (Reuters) - U.S. forces girded for a new push in the hunt for Osama bin Laden on Tuesday as Afghanistan's leader Hamid Karzai pressed on with the task of extending his authority across a nation shattered by war into armed fiefdoms.
U.S. defence officials in Washington said American and allied forces would soon make a fresh thrust into caves and tunnels in the Tora Bora area of eastern Afghanistan after bombing bin Laden's al Qaeda fighters there into submission.
"Operations are imminent," one defence official said.
One option is to use "thermobaric" bombs to blast the air out of the underground mountain warrens, suffocating anyone holed up inside. The Pentagon said on Friday that it was sending 10 of the experimental bombs to Afghanistan.
Other officials said late last week that about 500 Marines had been put on stand-by in Afghanistan for possible orders to help search the caves, al Qaeda's last major Afghan redoubt, for clues to bin Laden's whereabouts.
The Saudi-born militant, accused of masterminding the September 11 attacks on the United States, has vanished and U.S. officials acknowledge they no longer know whether he is dead or alive or has fled Afghanistan.
Kenton Keith, a spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition conducting the hunt for bin Laden, said in Pakistan that it was "quite possible" he had been killed, but the U.S. defence official said the search was still on.
Karzai, sworn into office on Saturday at the head of a new interim government following the defeat of bin Laden's Taliban protectors, has said U.S. forces may remain in Afghanistan for as long as it takes to find the millionaire fugitive.
He has moved quickly to establish support for his 30-member cabinet, whose challenge lies in building consensus in a country where 23 years of war have fractured a devastated land into a patchwork of areas run by ethnic warlords and tribal barons.
On Tuesday, Karzai was spending the day meeting tribal elders at the presidential palace after appointing ethnic Uzbek warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum as deputy defence minister.
Dostum, a fearsome former communist general with his own private army, was propelled back into control of the main northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif with the assistance of U.S. air strikes that toppled the Taliban for harbouring bin Laden.
His inclusion in the new government, established under a U.N.-sponsored power sharing deal, fends off a powerful potential foe and marks a first step to establishing a national army for Afghanistan from its tribal and ethnic militias.
Those fighters have been vital allies in the U.S. air campaign that routed the fundamentalist Islamic Taliban and in the ground assault to flush out diehard Taliban and al Qaeda loyalists.
In the southern city of Kandahar, eight wounded Arab al Qaeda fighters armed with guns and grenades remained barricaded in a ward of a local hospital after a failed attempt by U.S.-backed forces loyal to city governor Gul Agha to deal with them.
AIR STRIKES RESUME
Shooting broke out at the hospital a day earlier after one of the group, apparently injured in U.S. bombing raids, was lured into leaving the ward and sounded the alarm when he realised it was a trap. U.S. forces arrested him, witnesses said.
"Now they are very nervous and they won't allow anyone in, not even the nurses," said security guard Niaz Mohammad.
Head nurse Ghulam Mohammad told Reuters: "I fear now that the solution to this problem will be with bloodshed."
Kandahar, the spiritual birthplace of the Taliban and the movement's last bastion, fell to tribal fighters on December 7.
U.S. defence officials said air strikes over Afghanistan had resumed on Sunday with multiple attacks on caves and ammunition dumps north of Kandahar using precision-guided munitions.
The strikes ended a lull following a deadly raid on a convoy in eastern Afghanistan last week that survivors said was a mistaken target.
Villagers in eastern Paktia province and survivors say up to 60 people were killed when U.S. aircraft attacked a motorcade carrying ethnic Pashtun tribal elders to Karzai's inauguration.
U.S. defence officials say they struck a legitimate target -- presumed to be Taliban militia -- after members of the convoy fired shoulder-launched missiles at U.S. planes.
Karzai's spokesman Ustad Stanikzai added his voice to speculation that Afghan foes of some of the elders in the motorcade may deliberately have misidentified them to U.S. forces.
"Rivalries among the various tribes may have led to the incident," Stanikzai said
Tuesday December 25, 3:56 PM AFP
Afghanistan's new leader included Uzbek warlord Abdul Rashid Dostam in his government, despite his criticisms of the first post-Taliban administration, as Afghan forces arrested eight suspected supporters of Osama bin Laden.
Hamid Karzai's new government also backed Pentagon claims that a deadly US air raid last week blasted a convoy carrying members of bin Laden's al-Qaeda network, after reports said it contained only ethnic chiefs and tribal leaders.
And as a subdued United States prepared to celebrate Christmas under the shadow of September 11 terror attacks, a man appeared in court in Boston, after allegedly trying to blow up a packed US airliner over the Atlantic on Saturday.
Just two days after Karzai took office at the head of an interim power-sharing cabinet, he met Dostam and offered him the job of deputy defence minister.
Dostam, who commands a powerful military force from his headquarters in the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif, had voiced dissatisfaction with the Bonn agreement which set up Karzai's six-month government.
The veteran general said he had his own political ambitions once Karzai's six-month mandate expires and a traditional assembly or Loya Jirga convenes to map out the nation's future.
"After six months there will be a Loya Jirga -- I will listen to the wishes of my people but there will be a constitution and law in Afghanistan," Dostam said. "If peace comes to Afghanistan, I want to enter the political movement."
In the southern city of Kandahar, Afghan forces stormed a hospital and arrested eight suspected al-Qaeda members after a brief exchange of gunfire, a spokesman for provincial governor Gul Agha said Monday.
Spokesman Akbar Jan said 12 Arabs, believed to be al-Qaeda members, were admitted to Mirwais Hospital in Kandahar before the departure of the Taliban militia from the city earlier this month.
"These Arabs had been a problem for us. They were threatening to blow up the room in which they were admitted if any attempt was made to arrest them," Jan told AFP.
"They had also warned they would not allow any foreigner to interrogate them."
Border Affairs Minister Amanullah Zadram meanwhile said four al-Qaeda troops were killed in Thursday's bombardment of a convoy by US warplanes that left 65 people dead.
Locals had insisted the raid hit tribal elders, mujahedin fighters and others en route to Karzai's inauguration, but Zardam corroborated US claims that American pilots had come under fire.
"They fired an anti-aircraft missile so they are not innocent. There were four Al-Qaeda in the convoy," Zadram told reporters, adding that around a dozen innocent civilians were also killed.
US commanders have insisted the convoy was a "good target" as the United States continues its hunt for bin Laden, his al-Qaeda fighters, and the Taliban leaders who sheltered the alleged terrorist mastermind.
The incident brought threats of retaliation against the administration of Karzai, who took office in Kabul on Saturday more than a month after the punishing US air campaign helped topple the radical Taliban militia.
In Boston, a man overpowered in an alleged bid to blow up an American Airlines flight from Paris to Miami on Saturday was charged with interfering with a flight crew.
Though the suspect was charged under the name of British passport holder Richard Reid, 28, investigators are still probing his identity amid confusion over his name and nationality.
The tall, long-haired suspect has alternately identified himself to US authorities as Sri Lanka-born Tariq Raja, born in 1973, and as Abdel Rahim, a name reflecting his conversion to Islam, French police have said.
Investigators are trying to establish whether he acted alone or as part of a group.
The suspect had tried unsuccessfully a day earlier to board the American Airlines flight from Paris to Miami but achieved his goal Saturday, traveling without luggage on a round-trip ticket to the Caribbean island of Antigua reportedly purchased at a travel agency in Paris.
Stashed in his shoes, according to French police citing unnamed US investigators, was about 200 grammes (under half a pound) of pentrite, a hard-to-manufacture substance often used as a detonator in military ordnance.
The amount of explosive found would have had a blast effect similar to that of many anti-personnel mines, which, according to the source, who asked to remain anonymous, would have been unlikely to have blown up the Boeing 767.
In Kabul, British commandos were patrolling the streets to ensure longtime ethnic tensions do not erupt to mar the launch of the new government, but the details of a future UN security force remained unfinished.
Between 3,000 and 5,000 international troops led by Britain are to use a six-month mandate to oversee the transition in Afghanistan, but a British spokesman said there were delays in rounding out the deployment.
As US-led troops continued to scour the rest of the country for bin Laden and Mullah Mohammad Omar, head of the hardline Islamic Taliban who ruled the nation until last month, the world's two most wanted men remained unsighted
THE WASHINGTON TIMES
By Rowan Scarborough
Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda organization has access to scores of tramp freighters around the world, and the United States fears the terror mastermind could rendezvous with his "navy" on the Pakistani coast and sail to freedom.
U.S. officials said in interviews that front organizations for al Qaeda operate ships that at times are used by the 12-year-old terrorist network to move arms and foot soldiers from country to country.
The presence of this loosely knit fleet is one reason coalition naval forces in the Persian Gulf and Arabian Sea are tracking, and in some cases, boarding ships to check for any al Qaeda leadership fleeing Afghanistan.
"The biggest fear in the administration right now is that bin Laden will suddenly show up on al Jazeera — postwar dated," a senior intelligence official said.
The Arab TV news network is a favorite forum for bin Laden. A new tape that was verified as contemporaneous would be highly embarrassing to the Bush administration. It would represent proof that the millionaire Saudi-exile had evaded Washington's manhunt and might be able to start new terrorist attacks.
The intelligence official was critical of the administration's search for bin Laden to date. The source cited its failure to track a Pakistani journalist who traveled to Afghanistan to interview bin Laden in early November at the height of the 10-week air war.
Still, officials said they have seen no credible evidence that bin Laden has left Afghanistan. They strongly suspect he remains in the White Mountains of northeastern Afghanistan, between Jalalabad and Pakistan. He either continues to evade U.S. technical sensors and special-operations troops, or he lies dead in one of the caves struck by Air Force and Navy bombs, one official said.
"There really are only about three possibilities," Army Gen. Tommy Franks, the war's overall commander, said in Kabul on Saturday. "He can be in Tora Bora or in that area dead, he can be somewhere else in Afghanistan and still be alive or perhaps he may have gotten over into Pakistan. Right now, we don't know which of those three categories he's in."
Officials say they have a general idea of bin Laden's movements during the war. When the bombing began Oct. 7, he moved among caves and secret compounds around Kandahar, birthplace of the radical Taliban militia. After his Taliban protectors lost the capital of Kabul, and made a last stand at Kandahar, he moved north.
U.S. intelligence officials believe he stayed briefly near the border city of Khowst, then shifted his security detail and close advisers to the Tora Bora region. He moved from cave to cave as his last contingent of about 1,000 al Qaeda fighters engaged in a fierce, two-week battle against the eastern alliance.
U.S. military officials are reasonably sure he was, and may still be, in Tora Bora. There were credible reports that members of his entourage moved in and out of the area during the air war's last days. Officials are also sure they heard his voice on a tactical radio five days before Tora Bora fell to Afghan fighters.
If bin Laden were to make it to the sea, officials believe Somalia's past willingness to harbor al Qaeda fighters would make the east African country his first choice.
One Bush administration official, however, said he saw an internal report that bin Laden might try the daring maneuver of returning to his native Saudi Arabia. There, he might live in tribal desert regions near Yemen that are generally ignored by the royal family's security forces.
Saudi Arabia exiled bin Laden in the 1980s. He set up operations in Sudan in 1991 before moving to Afghanistan in 1996.
Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf says his forces have sealed routes leading from the White Mountains' Tora Bora region to Pashtun tribal areas of Pakistan where bin Laden might find refuge.
"We are guarding each one of these passes," Gen. Musharraf said. "Maybe he is dead because all the operations that have been conducted, the bombardment of all the caves that have been conducted. There is a great possibility that he may have lost his life there. He is not in Pakistan."
The question of whether bin Laden's body lies in Tora Bora may be known soon. Gen. Franks is close to dispatching U.S. troopsto help special-operations soldiers and anti-Taliban forces search caves and tunnels used by al Qaeda planners
Marines in Kandahar Make 'Just Another Day' Special
By Karl Vick
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, December 25, 2001; Page A01
KANDAHAR, Afghanistan, Dec. 24 -- "I got Play-Doh," said Lance Cpl. David Howard.
"I got a football."
"I got candy."
And it wasn't even Christmas yet.
"You're the only one who gets mail on a regular basis," grumped Michael Barrie, a fellow Marine, fellow military policeman, fellow corporal and tentmate at the bustling U.S. military base here.
"That," Howard said, "is because nobody loves you."
The Marines camped here at Kandahar's airport knew long before Sept. 11 that they would spend Christmas overseas. Their routine deployment to U.S. warships had always been scheduled to run through December.
But it is one thing to know you won't be home for the holidays, and something else to find yourself guarding a shed full of suspected terrorists at the edge of an airstrip in southern Afghanistan on Christmas Eve.
So why does everything feel so familiar? Because life during wartime turns out to be a lot like life during peacetime if you're in the U.S. military. The days pass in 12-hour shifts. The chow comes in a plastic pouch the size of a textbook. The mail takes weeks to arrive, even during the holidays.
All of which is duly noted and noted again in this, the original culture of complaint. Yet every critical aside, every fatalistic observation comes out sounding chipper, and on the 24th day of December, this qualifies as the khaki equivalent of Christmas cheer.
"Work nights, sleep days, get three or four hours if you're lucky," said Howard.
Even though Christmas will be, as Howard put it, "just another day," the boredom of daily routine in a combat zone is nevertheless tinged with a rudimentary sense of anticipation.
With no mess tent, there's no chance of a turkey dinner. With no showers, there's no chance even of sprucing up. But the chaplains will convene a midnight Mass, as well as a Protestant service. And some of the grunts have fashioned Christmas trees from pine branches scavenged from the landscaped airport grounds.
The sprig outside the pup tent of Timothy Fouts, a corporal from Flintstone, Ga., with startlingly blue eyes, was topped by an empty Pepsi can and festooned with wee bottles of Avery Island brand Tabasco sauce. The red-and-green miniatures, which are included in every MRE, or meal ready to eat, added a festive touch.
But the only presents under the tree were those same MREs: "To: Scott. From: Navy Relief. To: Chuck. From: Sara."
"We don't have anything else to give each other," said Fouts. "But we blacked out the contents label so you don't know what it is."
Chicken with salsa or beef stew? The mystery of Christmas.
"You know what?" said corpsman Noel Martinez, reaching into his medic's kit. "I'm going to leave some morphine out for you guys."
Next he went for his wallet, to prove that's his real name.
"It's Christmas every day for me, man," Martinez said.
It's never Christmas for Russell Scott. The corpsman from Brooklyn is known as Abdul Rahman back home, the name he took when he converted to Islam 10 years ago.
"Muslims, we don't do Christmas," said Scott, 32. "We do our Eid festival day of Ramadan."
This year, that three-day festival came just a week before Christmas. Kandahar, the tumbledown city a dozen miles north of the Marine camp, celebrated with music for the first time since 1994, the year the Taliban came to power in Afghanistan. Scott celebrated Eid aboard a ship in the Arabian Sea, exchanging presents with Afghan militiamen being treated on board for injuries from an American bomb that hit the wrong target. He gave the Afghans T-shirts, jeans, sneakers and toiletries, all greatly appreciated.
At the Kandahar airport, Scott spends a fair amount of time educating his fellow Americans about Islam. There is "a lot of ignorant stuff around us," he said. "But it's not as bad as I would think.
"I have to explain to people about jihad," or holy war, he said, and its abuse by "factions who use the Koran.
"Most of the people know it's not Islam we're fighting against."
The MPs know it, they said.
"We're fighting people who crash airplanes into buildings," said Lance Cpl. Scott Murphy, 20, from Minneapolis.
"In the scheme of things," he said, "I wouldn't want to be anywhere else in the world."
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