Every person outside of the television news business had the same reaction: you all must have been out of your minds to go up into the tribal territories of Pakistan, the badlands on the border with Afghanistan where the Taliban and al Qaeda have created a safe haven.
To be honest, at the time we didn't sense any danger. We felt more uneasy driving to the air base where we would take the helicopter up into the mountains. To reach the air base, we had to drive through Peshawar, one of Pakistan's largest cities, a place that has been plagued by Taliban kidnappings, shootings and suicide bombings. A cameraman had been shot in the hand a few weeks earlier while driving through a Peshawar neighborhood.
Once we made it to the air base we were in the hands of the Pakistani military. I didn't detect any anxiety on the part of our five-man team as we loaded up the helicopters. I was not as worried as I was the time we had to drive to a U.S. military base in northern Iraq two years earlier. Then, with IEDs a serious concern on any semi-paved Iraqi road, we had hired a private security firm to drive us in an armored vehicle. I remember strapping on a helmet and body armor for that two-hour trip. This time, the fact that our Pakistani hosts didn't mention anything about wearing a helmet or a flak jacket led us to believe that the helicopters wouldn't be dropping us off in the middle of a raging battle.
Forty-five minutes later we were in Bajaur, a tribal agency adjacent to Afghanistan's violent Kunar Province, and the site of a brutal fight between the Pakistani military and the Taliban last fall. We were quickly split up into trucks for a 10-minute drive to former Taliban compounds. The officers escorting us were quite nervous. As we drove down the main road on the way to the village of Loe Sam, we were told not to look at any of the locals. This seemed a little paranoid but we mostly obeyed.
We arrived at a captured Taliban compound for a look at the maze of tunnels the militants had built over the course of many years. Stepping down into the first tunnel, it quickly became apparent the Taliban fighters didn't suffer from claustrophobia. The entrance was snug. But the outlets which led to other rooms, bunkers and compounds under the ground looked like they had been built for snakes. The Taliban had to crawl on their stomachs for hundreds of meters to reach these rooms and bunkers.