The area around the town of Khost in eastern Afghanistan, near the border with Pakistan, is where American-led forces are concentrating a lot of attention in the hunt for Al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters. It is also a place where they are trying to weld together an Afghan government force out of groups that were, until recently, sworn enemies and who still harbor deep grudges against one another.
Khost, 8 April 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The town of Khost in eastern Afghanistan lies just 25 kilometers from the Pakistan border, amid rugged, mountainous territory. U.S.-led coalition forces say Al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters use the hundreds of narrow, steep paths threading through these mountains to cross into Pakistan, where coalition forces cannot follow. The U.S. says these fighters then return to launch small-scale attacks on coalition forces.
In early April, five missiles were fired at U.S. troops operating north of Khost. In March, there was an attack on a U.S. base on the outskirts of town in which two Afghan government soldiers were killed and a U.S. soldier was wounded.
U.S. and British special forces operate continuously in the mountains and passes near Khost. The British combat troops from the Royal Marines, who are now arriving in Afghanistan to bolster the U.S. military presence, are specifically trained to fight in cold, mountainous terrain and will probably be deployed in the Khost area later this month.
Late last week, troops from the elite U.S. 101st Airborne Division returned by helicopter to the main coalition base in Bagram after a week of secret patrols in the Khost region, during which they say they seized and destroyed Al-Qaeda weapons and supplies. They said they also found leaflets printed in Pashto offering rewards for the bodies of coalition soldiers and Western reporters.
Khost is also a place where U.S. special forces are training Afghans themselves to help in the fight against Al-Qaeda. But the attempt to bring together Afghan fighters from different factions is demonstrating the deep divisions that will have to be overcome if there is any chance of long-term peace and stability in the country.
The largest armed faction in Khost belongs to the Zadran clan, which has been a power in the Khost, Paktia, and Paktika provinces for generations. It opposed the Taliban during the six-year rule of the radical Islamic regime. Clan leader Bacha Khan remained in exile in Pakistan throughout most of that period.
After the fall of the Taliban, he thought he would regain his supremacy and become governor of Paktia Province. But he found that former Taliban commanders, who now say they are loyal to the pro-Western interim government, were vying with him for power.
In January, Bacha Khan's forces battled but lost against their rivals in the city of Gardez, the capital of Paktia Province, 60 kilometers northwest of Khost. In Khost, Bacha Khan's forces outgun their rivals, however, and it is his men -- armed with machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades -- who patrol the town's streets in pickup trucks.
The commander of those fighters, who number around 3,500, is Bacha Khan's younger brother, Kamal Khan Zadran. Late last month, two men attempted to kill Zadran, but they themselves were killed after killing three of Zadran's bodyguards.
Zadran said the men could have come from three rival groups in the area, former Taliban supporters who control three sectors of the area around Khost, including a hilltop fort overlooking the town. Two of those groups, like Zadran's own militia, have men being trained by American special forces based near Khost.
Zadran says his anti-Taliban credentials are clear. He explains why 500 of his men are being trained by U.S. forces and why they helped conduct a massive U.S.-led offensive against Al-Qaeda last month, called Operation Anaconda. "America and American forces have helped Afghanistan a lot, and the Afghan people will help those who help the Afghans. Therefore, we definitely will help the American forces. We have given 500 men to be trained by the Americans because we want to fight terrorists, because the terrorists are the enemy of America, and they are also our enemies."
But he claims the other groups are participating only because the U.S. was paying salaries of $200 a month, a huge amount in impoverished Afghanistan. He also alleges the other groups still have ties to the Taliban and Al-Qaeda and have been helping to supply them their fighters.
Zadran says there are about 7,000 Al-Qaeda fighters in the area around Khost, but that they move freely between Afghanistan and Pakistan. "The border between Pakistan and Afghanistan is a very long one, and it's very difficult to stop supplies or Al-Qaeda crossing to and fro. They are supported by the Pakistanis and are openly supported by the madrasahs [Islamic schools] who have proclaimed a jihad [holy struggle] against the Americans and against us and are turning people against us."
At the end of March, several hundred of Zadran's men went into the mountains after receiving information about the location of Al-Qaeda forces. But he said that when they arrived, the Al-Qaeda fighters had fled. "Al-Qaeda are not fighting in the same way that we do, trying to advance. They are fighting as guerrillas. And it's very difficult to finish off guerrilla fighters."
Zadran's rivals deny they are still sympathetic to the Taliban. Haji Saifullah is the arch foe of Zadran's clan, and the person whose fighters won the clash against Bacha Khan in Gardez.
Saifullah, leader of the tribal council for Paktia, Paktika, and Khost provinces, admits he was once a Taliban supporter but turned against them. "When we realized that they were under the control of Al-Qaeda, and we saw that the Al-Qaeda were terrorists, we abandoned them," he said. "We welcome the Americans in our country as guests, as long as they are trying to bring peace and stability." But he added that a guest should not overstay his welcome.
Saifullah calls Bacha Khan an "uneducated man who is not fit to be governor." During the clash, around 60 men were killed and another 60 wounded. Saifullah says he hopes there will be a peaceful resolution, but warns that his men are ready to fight.
Ordinary residents in the area are fearful that the fighting will re-erupt and wreck the start they have made to rebuild their farms and small businesses after 25 years of conflict.
Dr. Miraj Gul, a veterinarian in Khost, said that without the U.S. presence, rival military commanders will start fighting each other again. "We are very happy that the Americans are here because, without them, Khost would be destroyed within a couple of days."
Tension and shooting between the rival factions often forces the shops and stalls in the dusty bazaar in Khost to close. Shopkeeper Mohamed Gul Shah said he supports anyone who delivers security and peace.
A spokesman for the U.S. forces, Captain Tony Rivers, said the U.S. forces are aware of the bitter rivalries in the region. "We acknowledge the fact that there are various warlords, various tribal leaders, and sometimes they don't have the best of terms between them. We've made a point not to get involved in that personally. We don't choose sides. What we've run into some trouble with is that if we're working with one set of people, one group of people, and our soldiers wind up in some sort of skirmish because they're tagging along with that group, then if we are attacked, our soldiers have the ability to retaliate. But certainly that's not choosing sides. That's walking a thin line. That's what it is. We've got a mission to accomplish. We could not have accomplished it without our Northern Alliance allies, without our anti-Taliban allies, and the part they've played has been very valuable here."
He says the U.S.-led forces hope that rival factions will eventually find harmony but he said American forces are in Afghanistan temporarily. "Certainly the hope is that as they do work together with a common goal they will put differences aside, but that's not our mission. Our mission is to root out the Al-Qaeda and Taliban networks, and we're doing that with the help of our Northern Alliance partners, and they've been a tremendous help. Hopefully, a side effect or a benefit of that will be better relations amongst themselves. But certainly the greatest hope that they have is the interim government as they work together to establish their government. A government that we impose on them just won't work. The government they build, that's the better option of the two."
This pattern of ethnic, tribal, and clan hostilities is repeated all over Afghanistan. The long-term peace that the international community desires for the country can only become reality if such differences are resolved by discussion rather than by the traditional Afghan method -- from behind the barrel of a gun.