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Afghanistan: Zadran Threatens Karzai's Government, Complicates Antiterrorist Campaign

Renegade Afghan warlord Padshah Khan Zadran says he continued a counterattack against government troops today in a fight for control of the southeastern city of Khost. But officials in the city are refuting Zadran's claims, saying all has been quiet in and around Khost today. RFE/RL examines the situation, including concerns expressed by United Nations and U.S. officials about the problems Zadran is creating for both the Afghan Transitional Authority and the U.S.-led campaign against terrorism.

Prague, 10 September 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Afghan officials in the southeastern province of Khost are denying reports of an infantry battle today between government troops and those of renegade warlord Padshah Khan Zadran.

Zadran says he continued a counterattack today on the provincial capital of Khost -- a city near the Pakistan border that had been his stronghold until it was seized on 8 September by troops of Khost Governor Hakim Taniwal.

Correspondents report that artillery and rocket barrages were launched overnight near Khost by both Zadran's fighters and Taniwal's troops. But RFE/RL's correspondent in Khost confirms that there has not been fighting in or around the city today.

Mohammad Ibrahim Moshfiq, a deputy of Taniwal, says at least two women and a child were killed overnight when rockets fired by Zadran's troops landed in the city center. Those deaths raise to more than 20 the number of troops and civilians reportedly killed by fighting during the last three days near Khost.

A spokesman for Taniwal, Mohammad Khan Gurbuz, told the Associated Press today that Zadran's men are thought to be making a stand about 7 kilometers west of Khost at Badam Bagh. The settlement sits on a narrow mountain road that links Khost to Gardez, the capital of nearby Paktia Province.

But Gurbuz also said that the Pakistan-based Afghan Islamic Press (AIP) had erroneously reported an intense battle and artillery exchange today at Badam Bagh. The AIP attributed its report to Gurbuz. Kheal Baz, a local commander of Taniwal's troops who is posted at Badam Bagh, also denied that there has been any fighting there today.

In an interview yesterday with RFE/RL, pro-Taniwal infantry commander Colonel Khialbaz Shirzai said that the root cause of the fighting at Khost is Zadran's desire to control the regions along the Afghan-Pakistan border. "Everyone in this city [of Khost] knows that Hakim Taniwal, Khost's governor, has sent messages to [Padshah Khan Zadran] asking him not to destroy our country. [Taniwal said,] 'This land belongs to the people of Khost. Don't destroy it and don't wish death and homelessness upon these people.' Padshah Khan Zadran did not even accept the legitimacy of the central government [of Transitional Authority President Hamid Karzai]. Thus, the fighting broke out."

Other pro-Taniwal commanders today are rejecting Zadran's claim that his troops have surrounded Khost and are poised to recapture the city from the northeast. Moshfiq says Zadran's followers have all been forced out of the city. He says control of the governor's residence -- a compound used by Zadran's supporters as a base since May -- has been wrested away from them.

Zadran is an ethnic Pashtun and a former mujahedin commander who fought against Soviet and Afghan communist forces in the same mountains and along the same roads where fighting raged on 8 and 9 September.

Zadran had been the governor of Paktia Province until February, when he was sacked by Karzai over a deadly military assault Zadran ordered against his Pashtun political rivals in Gardez. Yesterday, Zadran pledged that he would continue fighting until Karzai appoints him chief administrator for the provinces of Paktia, Khost, and Paktika.

For his part, Karzai has called Zadran and his supporters "thugs" who threaten national unity and internationally backed plans to bring peace, stability, and democracy to Afghanistan.

Indeed, Zadran's outspoken refusal to recognize the legitimacy of Karzai's Transitional Authority represents one of the most serious threats to the Afghan president's fragile hold on power.

In New York yesterday, UN special envoy to Afghanistan Lakhdar Brahimi told a conference on Afghan reconstruction that the lack of security in Afghanistan is having a profound impact on the credibility of Karzai's fledgling government. Brahimi said the situation could undermine Karzai's administration.

In addition to Zadran, UN officials also say they are concerned about factional fighting in the north, east, and west of the country as well as a series of violent attacks against foreign aid workers, the assassination of two government ministers earlier this year, and last week's failed assassination attempt against Karzai by a gunman in Kandahar.

Nevertheless, senior U.S. military officials have been reluctant to offer direct support to Karzai in any factional dispute.

Even after Zadran was sacked by Karzai, the renegade warlord's fighters joined the U.S.-led coalition in March for a campaign in Paktia Province code-named Operation Anaconda. The U.S. distanced itself from Zadran following a second attack on Gardez in May, but U.S.-led coalition forces still rely on his cooperation for access to the areas controlled by his fighters in the Paktia, Khost, and Paktika provinces.

That isolated mountainous area is where Taliban and Al-Qaeda fighters are thought to have fled since the collapse of the Taliban regime. Since last December, a series of major U.S.-led operations have been launched in the area aimed at hunting down remnants of the Taliban and Al-Qaeda.

U.S. military spokesman Colonel Roger King said today that hundreds of U.S. soldiers have been deployed in Paktika Province in recent days as part of the latest antiterrorism operation. Code-named Operation Champion Strike, the mission focuses on the Bermel Valley in Paktika Province close to the border with Pakistan -- an area under Zadran's control about 100 kilometers from Khost.

King also has confirmed that the commander of antiterrorism-coalition forces in Afghanistan, U.S. Lieutenant General Dan McNeill, met with Zadran on 8 September to complain that his roadblocks are making it difficult for U.S. forces to conduct the operation.

King says U.S. troops are on the ground to monitor what is happening at Khost. But he said they are keeping a distance and will not get involved in any fighting unless they are directly challenged.

King also said today that the Afghan government is able to handle its own internal problems. But he said coalition forces reserve the right to protect their ability to move freely in the battlefield. He also said that U.S. forces would take action if they are threatened by Zadran's troops.