Roze Khan. His name means nothing to most Americans who have never heard it mentioned. But thousands of miles away from the United States, in the dry south of Afghanistan, it is a name that resonated across dirty brown mountains and remote, dusty villages, sometimes in fear, sometimes in awe.
And when he was killed by U.S. Special Operations forces last week, it was news that spread like wildfire, across the mountains and arid plains and over the Afghan border into Pakistan where it was surely greeted with dismay among the communities of Taliban members and supporters who continue to base themselves in that country's semi-autonomous tribal areas.
"He was like 'Billy the Kid' in these parts," one American soldier told me, "We've been after him for more than two years and he's escaped twice before so this feels really good."
And it should. Roze Khan was the top Taliban commander based in southern Afghanistan, and the American forces here believe he recruited and organized both Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters, financing them from Pakistan. In fact, almost $10,000 in U.S. currency and a huge wad of Pakistani rupees was found on his body to support that belief.
They also believe Khan was responsible for laying of mines, kidnapping aid workers and road workers, as well as attacks on American, Afghan and coalition soldiers. There is certainly no doubt about Roze Khan's intentions on the day he was shot dead. As Coalition Special Operations Forces approached the village where he was on a hot, dry Friday morning, Khan picked up an AK-47 rifle, six magazines, six grenades, a pistol and all that money and began to saunter casually up the mountainside behind the village.
But the soldiers had already anticipated his possible movements and it took no time for two assault teams to corner him on the mountain. Khan opened fire first, emptying his magazine before he was shot multiple times and fell bleeding onto the rocky, unforgiving ground. His body was immediately checked for known identifying marks and it was apparent from the very outset that this was the high-value target the soldiers were after, although they would wait for absolute confirmation before announcing his death to the world.
There was no further resistance from the village, and curiously, in this tiny place that could have housed no more than about a hundred people, not a single man asked to identify the body admitted knowing Roze Khan or ever having seen him before.
The coalition soldiers came in with overwhelming force, but they used it sparingly. Because there were shots fired, they handcuffed some 22 men in the village of fighting age and above. Then they were searched and questioned. But contrary to popular perceptions, soldiers here operate with very strict rules, and unless they find weapons or other evidence on someone, they cannot be detained, which is similar to how the police operate in the U.S. So after several hours, only two men were detained while the rest had their plastic cuffs cut free and were left to ponder the American soldiers actions, that seemed to have taken them completely by surprise.
Even without detainees, operations like this are never a wasted exercise because fingerprints are taken from all the men and entered into a massive database that is designed to prevent people making their way into the U.S. to carry out terror attacks the way the Sept.11 hijackers did.
For the men who found Roze Khan, this was a huge morale boost. A textbook operation, executed almost to perfection. This particular team has captured or killed five Taliban commanders, more than any other single team since this war began over two years ago. They don't want any credit for it, they tell me, because that's not why there are here, doing this very difficult and dangerous job.
But it is gratifying to know that back home in the U.S., thousands of miles and several world away, people remember an important war is still being fought.