GHAZNI, AFGHANISTAN — Ali Akbar Qasmi claims he does not work for the money. But he hasn't turned down the $40,000 a head that he says the US government pays him for turning over senior Taliban leaders and Al Qaeda members.
"We do it because we have promised the Americans that we will fight with them," Commander Qasmi says.
Like hundreds of other Afghan volunteer hunters, Qasmi is gunning for Al Qaeda and Taliban fighters. He hopes to feed into America's effort to rout remaining militants in eastern Afghanistan.
"We have a few pockets of resistance remaining that we're dealing with," Maj. Gen. Henry Stratman said yesterday.
There have been several reports - all un- confirmed - that a missile fired by an unmanned US aircraft on Monday killed several Al Qaeda members, including one leader. Bad weather in the mountainous region of Paktia Province has prevented locals from getting to the site.
But with three recent captures - two Saudis, one of whom claims he prepared meals for Osama bin Laden, and a Kurd - Commander Qasmi's record stands out as far better than most Afghan commanders.
He says that hunting Al Qaeda and Taliban "cells" in and around Ghazni requires some degree of stealth. "We have about 40 men in civilians clothes who lurk around hotels, mosques, and bus stops waiting to intercept the enemy," he says. "They have walkie-talkies, and when they spot a catch, they call it in as soon as they can."
Qasmi, a small, middle-aged man who more resembles a Buddhist monk than a warlord, says he keeps his 550 men patrolling the main roads and also the well-trod nomad routes that skirt the mountains.
A tank commander in the Afghan military when the war against the Soviets broke out, Qasmi left Ghazni on a reconnaissance mission yesterday with 15 of his heavily armed Hazara gunmen astride two pickup trucks that he says he bought with money he was paid by the US for turning over two Taliban leaders.
Near to the Ziarat, an Al Qaeda training base West of town, several Taliban gunmen stared down the Hazara fighters, their fingers twitching on Kalashnikovs.
"If we move closer, they'll open up on us," says the Hazara commander, who decided to back off because of the reporter accompanying the group.
But Qasmi says his normal routine is that when he and his men spot large groups of Arabs - as they did the other day while patrolling near the village or Qarah Bagh - they do some quick math.
"It takes five of my guys to successfully capture one Arab," he says. "That is because they almost always fight to the death."
So when a group of 10 of Qasmi's Hazaras spotted 10 armed Arab fighters on foot early this week, they dove into a ditch and just watched the Al Qaeda fighters pass by.
Qasmi says that if he had a direct line to the US military - and their helicopters that patrol the region - he would have at least tried to catch the 10 Arab fighters.
The three that were captured earlier this week were much easier for Qasmi's group to overtake. Two were traveling together, and the other - the cook - was alone on the road heading south toward Kandahar. Qasmi's men were able to quickly surround and disarm the men, then take them into his custody.
But Qasmi and his men are not popular in Ghazni, where both Tajik and Pashtun tribesmen are also vying for control of this sprawling, 3,000 year-old crossroads and former capital of the country.
The Tajik security chief of Ghazni, Ismail Khan, says that he has no objection to Qasmi hunting Al Qaeda and Taliban members in the countryside, but wants the Hazara commander's men to abandon the ancient fortress they have seized in the city center.
"Before the Taliban arrived in this city, the Hazara were robbing and raping. We finally forced them out of the city in 1994," Mr. Khan says.
The Hazaras of Afghanistan is believed to have descended from the Mongol conqueror, Ghengis Khan. Until late in the 19th century, they lived in an autonomous mountain fiefdom near Bamiyan and had only limited contact with their neighbors.
Today's enemies of the Hazaras contend that their human rights record is not much better than that of Ghengis Khan's men. Indeed, the three Al Qaeda captives that the Hazaras have in captivity at present have been severely beaten on a regular basis - even by Hazara accounts.
"We beat them almost every night, but still they haven't begun to tell us the truth," says Qurban Ali, who is Qasmi's tall, turbaned right-hand man.
The most lucrative catch by far - worth $80,000 to his small army - came late last year when the Hazara commander arranged through a local Taliban source to have Mullah Wasiq, the militia's deputy intelligence chief, over to dinner.
Also invited were four US Special Forces and three men in plain clothes that the commander now says he is sure were CIA.
Mullah Wasiq and a close associate brought 15 bodyguards for what quickly evolved into a roundtable discussion. As the conversation progressed, Qasmi offered the Taliban officials "amnesty" in exchange for their cooperation as "counterintelligence officers."
There had been some suggestion that Mullah Wasiq might be interested in the deal, Qasmi says. But when his American minders gave the nod, he knew that the time had come to act.
His men moved in for the snatch. Entering through several low-set windows in the commander's home, Hazara fighters quickly disarmed the Taliban officials, who were in one room eating while their guards were next door drinking tea.
In exchange for turning the men in, Qasmi claims he received $80,000 in cash from his American friends. With the money, he bought two used pickup trucks, supplies, and food.
He categorically denies, however, that he hunts Al Qaeda or Taliban only for the money. He says the $80,000 wasn't even enough to buy his fighters new coats and feed them - much less pay them a salary.
He points out that the local price that Al Qaeda has put on the head of an American - $50,000 - is still more than the $40,000 that the Americans are offering for senior Taliban leaders and Al Qaeda fighters. "Just for the prisoners I'm holding, Al Qaeda is offering me - through their channels here in Ghazni - $10,000 each," he claims. "I'm capturing these guys because, first they are our enemies, and second, they are America's enemies."