Lying low in 'Taliban country'

As the US hunt for Al Qaeda continues, Afghans are reluctant to help, for fear of being abandoned.

The tribal chiefs say they haven't seen a foreigner here for years, but they insist that they're dying to take an American hunting in the hills outside of town. That is where US Black Hawk helicopters are already whipping through snow-covered mountain passes, occasionally dropping off a platoon for a quick - usually fruitless - search mission.

But, unlike the US troops, the Pashtun tribesmen aren't after lingering Al Qaeda cells; they're anxious to take well-heeled foreigners hunting for bighorn ram and deer.

The citizens of Moqor have run up the Afghan king's flag here at the royal family's 100-year-old hunting lodge in the heart of what is still, by most accounts, "Taliban country" and are rolling out the red carpet for just about any visitor who drops in.

Senior military and civilians in the provincial capital, Ghazni, say that Afghanistan's remaining Taliban leaders and their Al Qaeda "guests" have recently settled into the hills of southern Ghazni and all of Zabul province. Apart from having to dodge the occasional Black Hawk raid, they are living unobtrusively alongside the people they turned a few of their heavy weapons over to.

Some of the locals are more enthusiastic about the monarchy than others, but here in Moqor, the "king's men" have taken up residence at the hunting lodge. The decrepit Victorian mansion is where King Zahir Shah, 28 years absent from his homeland, would always stop to hunt whenever he traveled between Kabul and Kandahar, say the tribesmen.

As for the other hunt in town - the search for Al Qaeda - tribal leaders interviewed say it's none of their business - at least for now. Their attitudes are commonplace across a vast swath of Afghanistan, from Khost province in the East to Kandahar province in the South, where Pashtun tribesmen say they don't want to spark a civil war by pressing the hunt for members of the terror network.

Eid Mohamad, the local security chief in Moqor, says: "If the US military wants to, they can come here and search and arrest the culprits, but this is not my duty. I'm the security chief for my people, not the Taliban and the Arabs." As he speaks, a pair of Black Hawk helicopters zipped down the valley and disappeared behind a hill shaped like the back of a crouching camel.

The security chief and others say there are other factors that argue against local Afghans joining in the hunt.

Tribesmen - even warlords sympathetic to Washington's interests - fear that they'll be abandoned if the US leaves the job half-done.

Commander Ismail Khan in Ghazni (not to be confused with the commander by the same name in the country's far west, who has strong links with Iran) is so proud of his cooperation with the US Special Forces and the CIA that he calls himself "an American soldier." Along with a small group of his own fighters, he freed seven international Christian aid workers from their Taliban captors last year. Since his heroic efforts, however, he hasn't been on any major Al Qaeda or Taliban raids in Ghazni.

"I'm sure that the US military is going to get out of here as soon as possible," he says. "If and when the Taliban return, they will kill me - even my family members. I'm already known as the Christian-lover."

The burly, gap-toothed Tajik commander, who has two wives, eight sons, and two daughters complained, as have several other senior Afghans here, that US forces have not acted quickly enough on intelligence he and his fellow commanders have been providing about Taliban and Al Qaeda movements.

"A few weeks ago, I could have told you where a lot of them are," he says. "But now they've all ducked away to new hideouts. If the hunt for Al Qaeda is done only half way, then we all lose."

Another obstacle is local tradition.

Seddiq Ullah, the deputy security chief in Moqor, says that any refuge seeker "whether he has committed a murder in another province or not, is still eligible for refuge with us. This is a tradition older than Islam, and we respect it." That, though he avoids mention of it, would presumably include Al Qaeda and Taliban fighters.

While the US military has been working closely with Tajiks and Hazaras in eastern and southern Afghanistan, Washington has shown little interest in working with the Pashtuns, the country's largest ethnic group, because their religious schools gave rise to the Taliban.

That lack of international enthusiasm puts the Pashtuns at a disadvantage even if they wanted to help, says Mr. Ullah.

"Right now, we don't have enough money or rations to keep 200 men on the job," he says. "We have not started a search yet."

What Mr. Ullah and other moderate tribal leaders across Afghanistan want first is a much greater international commitment to disarmament in their country. "If the UN or US sent teams in to disarm Afghans, we will cooperate. We are ready to work with them, searching home by home," he says.

What some tribal leaders don't want to see is an increase in the calls for revenge, which they say began when stray US bombs killed hundreds of innocent Afghan civilians last year.

Out of fear of US airstrikes, most Pashtuns are careful, when speaking to a foreigner, not to admit to the presence of Taliban and Al Qaeda elements in their areas.

Mr Ullah avoids labeling the people hiding in the hills around the hunting lodge.

"The problem is that our people are uneducated, and when they latch onto extremism they are reluctant to hand it over. You have to cut their hand off just to have them release it. But with a little help from our friends, we'll try to persuade them to give it up and come down from the mountains and live a normal life with the rest of us."

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