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Two fighters, one battlefield

New Yorker Danny Sjursen’s Afghanistan war ought to be personal. It’s anything but.

world Updated: Sep 10, 2011 23:23 IST

New Yorker Danny Sjursen’s Afghanistan war ought to be personal. It’s anything but.

The US Army cavalry captain, from a family three generations deep in the New York City Fire Department, needs two hands to count the friends who died rescuing people from the wreckage of al Qaeda’s attack on the World Trade Center’s twin towers on Sept. 11, 2001.

But too much time and two wars have passed between the day Sjursen, now 28, saw the towers fall while he was a cadet at the West Point US Military Academy. For him, there is little connection anymore between the war he is fighting and the retribution against the Taliban for harbouring al Qaeda that was the original casus belli. “My family sees it more than I do. They see it dead-on, direct. I’m a professional soldier. It’s not about writing the firehouse number on the bullet. I’m not one for gimmicks.”

A few hundred kilometres away, his enemy rests by a roadside, just across the Pakistani border. Fida Mohammed’s seminal moment in jihad came when he was only 10 years old, from a man he was too young to know much about. Osama bin Laden’s deadly handiwork created excitement in his village in Pakistan. Mohammed, now 20 and a
Taliban fighter, recalls people crowding around a man with a newspaper telling of the attacks in New York and Washington. “Most of them were cursing America,” Mohammed told Reuters in his village of Norak, 20 km (12 miles) from the Afghan border. “Very few people said it was not good because innocent people were killed.”

Jihad, and only Jihad

Over his parents’ objections, Mohammed soon began collecting clothes and food from people to help the Taliban. “My aim is jihad and only jihad, and to defeat the infidels and drive them out of Afghanistan,” said the strongly built, bearded Pakistani, who commutes to the war from his village.

Seven years passed before he was old enough to join up as a mujahideen. Even then, he had to sneak away, feigning plans to visit relatives, and his parents caught and tried to stop him. “I told them in plain terms that jihad has become obligatory on all Muslims and I cannot give it up at any cost. Now I often go to Afghanistan for the jihad,” he said.

Sjursen’s call to war, too, came from school. He was sparring in boxing class, as a first-year cadet, when someone burst in shouting that the World Trade Center was on fire.

Only the second in his family to get a university degree, he excelled in his high school studies and followed “the old romantic reasons for wanting to be a soldier” to West Point. Suddenly those reasons become more personal after 9/11.

Talk of War is Sweet

Mohammed took to jihad in Afghanistan in 2008, migrating across the border for attacks and sometimes into Helmand province to pick poppies for pocket money, with the bulk of the profits from the opium sales going to finance the Taliban. Barely a year after he joined jihad, he took two bullets in the arm during a firefight with Afghan troops that killed three of his comrades.

That was barely a taste of the war. “Talk of war is very sweet, but the situation on the battlefield is very bitter,” Mohammed said, sipping from a glass of water as he recalled how an American helicopter rained death on his comrades a year ago.

He and about 60 other fighters were heading to attack a military post in southern Uruzgan province, when the chopper spotted them and unleashed its cannon. Mohammed and 20 others, lagging behind, dashed for life-saving cover in the bushes.“There were many childhood friends among the 40 killed and that saddened me. I cried a lot that in just a few seconds so many Taliban mujahideen had been martyred. We collected their body parts with our hands and buried them there,” he said.

Sjursen met death in the cauldron of Baghdad in 2006, where he took command of his first platoon during the US surge to stabilise Iraq as it boiled in a bloody sectarian civil war. “It was a bad time,” Sjursen recalled, sitting in front of a bank of three computers inside his command centre. “This place has nothing on that. The madness is lacking here.”

Three of his men were killed and eight were wounded within the first 90 days of deployment. The wish for vengeance for 9/11 was swallowed by a greater violence. “I never thought about 9/11 at all because I was too busy dealing with the day-to-day of fighting the civil war,” Sjursen said. “It drove that gap between 9/11.”

With the end of 2014 the deadline for all foreign combat troops to pull out of Afghanistan, Sjursen can see an end to his wars. He will enrol for a master's degree later this year. “We're tourists here. We're going home, but this is their life,” Sjursen said.

Mohammed said he has had little time to think about his plans after the war, although he intends eventually to teach — if the war ever ends.