A few kilometers south of the Kandahar Airfield is a place known as Tarnak Farms. Although this place is now used as a weapons range, it is a place that has a colorful history and a bit of notoriety for a couple of reasons. Today, there is not much to see there. It is a large expansive area in the middle of the desert and if you were to stand there, you wouldn’t think too much of it. There are mountains off in the distance on almost all sides that look quite spectacular when lit up by the morning or late afternoon sun, but apart from that it is a barren and isolated place.
Perhaps it is this isolation that made it such an attractive locale over a decade ago when Osama bin Laden built a rather large compound there to house himself and many of his top lieutenants. It was here that the plan to hijack commercial airliners and crash them into prominent American landmarks began to form. In exile from both his homeland, Saudi Arabia, and the Sudan, bin Laden sought refuge in the one place where he was once revered as an icon. During the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, bin Laden was a key financial supporter in the jihad against the Soviets. This, along with the fact that he shared many of his beliefs with the Taliban, who were just coming into power at the time, made Afghanistan an ideal place to find sanctuary while carrying out his plans to target the west.
By this point in his life, bin Laden was a well known threat to American interests and an entire department within the CIA was dedicated to tracking his movements and determining the best way to neutralize the threat posed by him. While living in Afghanistan, the CIA monitored bin Laden very closely and he, of course, was well aware of this. In order to reduce his chances of detection and being targeted, bin Laden moved around the countryside every few hours. Although Tarnak Farms was central to his operation, it was but only one place where he could be found.
But, with millions of dollars spent on finding him, eventually bin Laden would be found. In 1998, bin Laden was positively identified as being present at Tarnak Farms and the process of seeking the necessary approvals for a missile strike were set into motion. It is believed that the decision to fire rested with Clinton, then President of the United States. Discussions were held as to the potential civilian casualties that may be caused should the compound be targeted, as several families of Al Qaida’s top lieutenants also lived at Tarnak Farms. With the Monica Lewinsky scandal in high gear and Clinton appearing on national television to apologize for his indiscretions, the decision was taken to cancel the strike. It was thought that too many civilian casualties was not something that the current administration could shoulder given the current state of affairs. Tarnak Farms remained in tact until the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan. Only then was Tarnak Farms reduced to rubble.
Then, as coalition forces moved into the neighboring Kandahar Airfield, Tarnak Farms presented an ideal spot to set up as a practice range for various types of weapons. Shortly thereafter, in April of 2002, members of the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry were conducting a night fire shoot at Tarnak Farms with a combination of small arms and anti-tank weapons. Two American jets flying overhead mistook the fire below for enemy fire and although the proper clearances were not granted, one of the pilots declared self-defence and released a bomb that killed the first four Canadians in Afghanistan. This incident received wide media coverage as the pilot responsible for the incident maintained that his actions were justified throughout the ensuing legal processes that continued for several years.
Although now, it is nothing more than a barren patch of desert, Tarnak Farms has a historical importance that most are probably unaware. It has had a significant impact on the lives of few, but holds a significance that is much larger for all. Of course, it is easy to look back in hindsight and wonder what may have been, or more accurately, what may not have been had a different course of action been taken a few years ago. But one cannot help but let these thoughts enter your mind when you stare out into the emptiness knowing that the world’s most wanted fugitive launched his plan that was to change the world only a few hundred meters from where you stand.