Troops celebrate holiday far from home

Touch football, carols, turkey dinners mark Christmas Day

Posted: Wednesday, December 26, 2001

BAGRAM, Afghanistan -- From Mazar-e-Sharif in the north to Kandahar in the south and the USS Theodore Roosevelt in the Arabian Sea, American forces celebrated Christmas with carols, touch football and turkey dinners -- and missed their faraway loved ones.

Tuesday was a working holiday for Gen. Tommy Franks, commander in chief of the U.S. Central Command, who visited two aircraft carriers. He said the United States was ''on course ... to root out this terrorism problem around the world.''

Overt and covert U.S. military operations are ''going on in a great many places ... that are designed to do away with these pockets of terrorism,'' Franks told The Associated Press, without giving details.

Despite the intensive bombardment of Taliban and al-Qaida targets since Oct. 7, U.S. forces have not given up the hunt for Osama bin Laden, even if he is buried under rubble in one of the Tora Bora mountain caves, Franks said, adding: "(We will) go through each of these areas until we satisfy ourselves that he is there and dead. We'll find out about it.''

Afghanistan's new government also was busy as Cabinet ministers assessed the poor conditions they inherited.

''This is one of the biggest jobs of this new government. The scale of the job is frightening,'' Rassool Amin, education minister in the 3-day-old interim administration, said while visiting his dilapidated ministry. ''We are beginning from nothing, from less than nothing.''

American forces did their best to get in the holiday mood so far from home.

''We brought the spirit of Christmas into the camp,'' Air Force Tech Sgt. Junius Harvey, of Pittsburgh, said at Bagram air base, north of the capital, Kabul.

In a cavernous, chilly hangar, soldiers fashioned a tree from cardboard and camouflage netting, trimming it with flares and empty containers from military rations.

On this day, they got a break from their MREs -- Meals Ready to Eat -- with a turkey-and-mashed-potatoes dinner with all the trimmings, even pumpkin and pecan pie.

About 100 troops stationed at the airfield, including a handful of British Royal Marines, sang carols that included traditional favorites like ''Silent Night'' but also a few composed especially for the occasion.

''On the first day of Christmas, my sergeant gave to me ... a ride in a busted Humvee,'' the men warbled.

Later, they planned to go caroling in nearby Bagram village. Locals gave the troops a Christmas card, written in the local language Dari except for ''Merry Christmas'' in English.

Franks told sailors on the USS Theodore Roosevelt that their mission was about protecting the future.

''Your country loves you, I love you,'' Franks said. ''This is about you and this is about (protecting) your grandbabies and my grandbabies.''

At the U.S. military camp at an abandoned school in the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif, soldiers also got a break from their rations with a hot meal of ham and turkey flown in for the holiday and cooked in the school kitchen. Following military Christmas tradition, the officers served the troops.

Outside, some soldiers took off their jackets on an unseasonably warm day and played a game of touch football on a muddy school field with some local Afghan soldiers.

At Kandahar Air Base in southern Afghanistan, Santa Claus distributed Christmas cards and gifts from home to the 2,000 Marines who have been stationed there the last two weeks.

Some went out to sing Christmas carols, but had to tote their weapons with them.

The Rev. Lewis Isolo, a U.S. Navy chaplain, called his duties this Christmas ''one of the greatest honors of my life.''

''To be with them at a special time like this, it's where a chaplain needs to be,'' Isolo said.

In other developments:

More than 500 female refugees, including former judges, doctors and government officials, gathered in Peshawar, Pakistan, to discuss their roles in the new Afghanistan. They approved resolutions to be presented to Prime Minister Hamid Karzai, including calls for equal rights, full participation in drafting a constitution and the rights to education and land ownership.

Sources said the United States has asked Yemen to allow U.S. Marines to take part in what has been a deadly hunt for al-Qaida members. A Western diplomat said the United States also has proposed setting up a joint task force in Yemen that would include officials from the CIA and other agencies to coordinate operations. The U.S. Embassy in Yemen was closed Tuesday for Christmas, and a Pentagon duty officer did not immediately return calls seeking comment.

Anti-Taliban forces detained an Afghan commander in eastern Afghanistan for alleged ties to al-Qaida, the Pakistan-based Afghan Islamic Press reported. Awal Gul, who played a key role in persuading Taliban commanders to surrender Nangarhar province to a council of tribal leaders, was arrested Sunday.

AP staffers Kathy Gannon in Kabul, Ravi Nessman in Mazar-e-Sharif, Paul Garwood aboard the USS Theodore Roosevelt and Ahmed al-Haj in Aden, Yemen, contributed to this report.

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