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Afghanistan: Clan Dispute Over Paktia Complicates U.S.-Led Antiterror Campaign

More fighting has erupted between rival ethnic Pashtun clans near the eastern Afghan town of Gardez. The weekend battle was in the same area where U.S.-led forces last month launched Operation Anaconda -- the largest ground offensive to date against Al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters. RFE/RL reports on how the local dispute is complicating the U.S.-led campaign against terrorism along the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Prague, 29 April 2002 (RFE/RL) -- A dispute between rival ethnic Pashtun clans in eastern Afghanistan has erupted, once again, in a battle that is complicating the U.S.-led campaign against terrorism. During the weekend, forces loyal to the ousted governor of Paktia -- Padshah Khan Zadran -- fired hundreds of rockets into the provincial capital of Gardez and several nearby villages.

The current governor of Paktia, Taj Mohammad Wardak, says 30 civilians were killed and more than 100 injured by the barrages.

Zadran claims he was responding to an attack by Taliban and Al-Qaeda fighters. Even if his claim is true, however, the barrages would be in direct violation of orders from Afghan leader Hamid Karzai's interim administration. The interim government has said no faction in Afghanistan can claim to be legitimately fighting terrorism if it does not first coordinate its efforts with the central government.

Wardak vowed yesterday that Zadran would be brought to justice. He said Zadran has 10 days to come to terms or he will face military action. He said that if Zadran is not held responsible for the deaths at Gardez, the incident will encourage other warlords across the country to use force in order to achieve their aims, thus causing Afghanistan to slide back into the same kind of chaos seen in the early 1990s.

Wardak also said he can fight Zadran's troops with his own forces and does not need help from interim government forces or from U.S. troops stationed nearby.

For their part, U.S. military leaders say they will not get involved in the dispute other than to try to broker a peaceful resolution.

Haji Khaoul Shah, a commander of Zadran's fighters, told RFE/RL yesterday that Zadran had no choice but to launch the barrage on Gardez. "The attack was started by them at [9:00 p.m. on Friday] when they launched rockets at our positions. We responded with rockets and artillery and they pulled back. At [1:00 a.m. on Saturday], they started again, this time firing rockets and tank [shells] at us."

Despite Karzai's ongoing support for Wardak as the only governor of Paktia Province, Khaoul Shah repeated Zadran's allegations that Wardak's allies include members of Al-Qaeda. "With Taj Mohammad, there are some people who are making obstacles for the Loya Jirga and are trying to create disruptions in our region. These are the kind of people who are giving Taj Mohammad a bad name, and giving the interim government a bad name, as well as disrupting the Loya Jirga process. Those who were with Al-Qaeda before are still with them now. And the whole world knows that."

The weekend battle occurred in the same mountainous area along the Afghan-Pakistan border from which U.S.-led coalition forces last month launched Operation Anaconda, the largest ground offensive to date against Al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters.

With reports suggesting that deployments are now under way for another U.S.-led operation along Afghanistan's eastern border, the tribal dispute in Paktia has become entangled in the politics of the international campaign against terrorism. That's because U.S. forces battling the remnants of Al-Qaeda and the Taliban need cooperation from both Wardak and Zadran in order to gain access to the strategic areas each side controls.

U.S. military officials in Afghanistan also told RFE/RL before the latest fighting that they would assist Wardak's troops -- or any other Afghan faction that can help them fight terrorism -- as long as those receiving the help are not from the Taliban or Al-Qaeda.

RFE/RL's correspondent in Paktia and the neighboring province of Khost has confirmed that at least 600 of Zadran's troops already received training from U.S. special forces in mid-February.

Zadran had once been considered the main U.S. ally in Paktia and Khost when those provinces were dominated by the Taliban and Al-Qaeda. Washington began questioning that relationship in late December, however, after Zadran called in a U.S. air strike against what he had said was a convoy of senior Taliban and Al-Qaeda officials.

Reports later emerged that the convoy did not include any members of the Taliban or Al-Qaeda. Rather, it reportedly was transporting Zadran's rivals -- all tribal elders from Paktia -- who were trying to attend Karzai's inaugural ceremony in Kabul.

Haji Saifullah Khan, a longtime rival of Zadran who heads the tribal council in Gardez, told RFE/RL it is no accident those killed in the air strike were Zadran's rivals.

At the Pentagon, U.S. military officials say they are still investigating whether American air power was wrongly used by one side in a tribal dispute unrelated to the campaign against terrorism. The Pentagon admits it has since altered its targeting policy to take into account possible disinformation from tribal factions trying to misuse the campaign against terrorism to their own advantage.

The fighting between Zadran and Wardak's forces also poses one of the biggest challenges to the authority of Karzai's administration since it came to power in December.

Less than a month after Karzai's inauguration, about 50 people were killed when Zadran's troops stormed the city of Gardez. Zadran, who was the governor of Paktia at the time, only managed to hold Gardez for a few hours before a counterattack by his Pashtun rivals forced his withdrawal.

Karzai initially had signed the decree appointing Zadran as the governor of Paktia. But in February, after Zadran's first attempt to storm Gardez, Karzai issued new decrees that stripped Zadran of the governor's post and installed Wardak in his place.

Zadran said he is still the legitimate governor of Paktia. He said he does not recognize Karzai's later decrees. His commander, Haji Khaoul Shah, reiterated that position to RFE/RL yesterday.

"Taj Mohammad is somebody that was appointed by the interim government, and we haven't recognized him as the governor, and we will not. Thank God we have Haji Padshah Khan for a leader, who has been appointed [in line with] the Bonn agreement, and 11 districts have also supported Padshah Khan. He is still our governor, and he has been appointed by a decree of the interim government," Khaoul Shah said.

Afghanistan's fledgling national army is in no position, on its own, to challenge the several thousand soldiers that Zadran has at his disposal. The national army only recently began training its first class of 600 recruits. It is not expected to reach its full strength of up to 100,000 troops for several years -- and only then if the force receives the financial and technical aid that has been promised by the United States and other Western states.

The most powerful Afghan military force at the moment is comprised of ethnic Tajiks from the Panjshir Valley. Observers say it would be an unpopular move by Karzai if he asked those ethnic Tajik fighters to move into the mostly Pashtun areas of Paktia and Khost in order to assert the interim administration's authority there.

That leaves the provinces of Paktia and Khost tense for now. RFE/RL's correspondent in the provincial capital of Khost, Javed Hamdard, reported that Zadran's troops still control the area, despite several attempts by the government to bring about their disarmament and withdrawal.

"Some of the government offices and places that [Padshah Khan Zadran's troops] had controlled after the Taliban fled are still under the control of [Zadran's] fighters. And in this regard, the government has tried to take these places back, but they haven't succeeded. Every day, armed people can be seen walking around the streets of [the provincial capital of] Khost," Hamdard said.

But the situation in Gardez has quieted somewhat since the weekend, with Zadran's troops pulling back from the positions from which they had fired upon the city.