Afghans to US: 'Work with us'
A missile attack last week raises questions about the gathering and sharing of intelligence.
KHOST, AFGHANISTAN — The gathering of 200 boisterous turbaned men, all of them former Afghan military officers, and most over 40, quickly evolved into a "USA-we-love-you" fest. They pumped their fists, raised high their ancient carbines, and expounded on Washington's attacks on Al Qaeda. That turned into a spontaneous chant: "Down with Al Qaeda! Long live America, who has turned our darkness into light!"
But the rally of former officers in a remote corner of Afghanistan was also intended to show US forces, stationed just down the road, that Afghans are keen to work more closely with Washington in its war against Al Qaeda.
Brigadier Gul Nawaz Mandozai, the rally's leader and a former professor of military strategy in Kabul, insists that the US military is "still not taking Afghans into consideration and planning."
"The remaining Al Qaeda fighters don't fear our civilians, they will fear an organized and disciplined military force," Mr. Mandozai says.
The litany of complaints from Afghans is long. They want more guns, more money, more peacekeepers, and a greater role in the war against Al Qaeda. And over four months into the US military intervention here, many Afghans say they are still uncertain about what America's goals here are.
Khost province is a microcosm of the difficulties that the US government and military face in efforts to fight Al Qaeda and placate the anxious Afghan masses. Residents here are heavily armed Pashtuns, the same tribal group that gave birth to the Taliban and rolled out the red carpet for Al Qaeda.
The regional airport is now abuzz with US military activity. Nearly 200 US soldiers are stationed there. Black Hawk choppers whip around the valleys beneath the snow-capped peaks of a now-famous former Al Qaeda terror base, Tora Bora.
Over the weekend, some 40 US fighters in black pants, with black knit caps, and extra pistols strapped to their legs, arrived here. Locals who work at the base say they believe that many of the new US fighters came to train a 400-strong Afghan "anti-Al Qaeda" force. None of the Afghans who are involved in the force, however, are sure what it will do, or when it will start hunting for lingering Al Qaeda fighters, most of whom have already fled farther south.
The province's newly appointed governor, Ibrahim Mushfiq, complains that he has been in office a week, but the US commanders based at the airport have not yet consulted with him. Unlike several important Afghan "special agents" for the US military in town, who have been given free communications devices by the Americans, the governor does not yet have a telephone.
Dr. Mushfiq also says that a US Hellfire missile attack a week ago - reported Wednesday by US officials to have possibly killed a senior Al Qaeda official - actually struck a group of hapless Afghan scrap collectors near the Zhawar Kili training base.
A team of US Special Operations Forces turned back a Washington Post reporter at gunpoint yesterday, as he tried to enter the site of the attack. The Post reporter says he spoke to local villagers, however, who described how their relatives had been collecting scrap metal at the site. The missile killed as many as six people as they loaded metal onto a pickup truck, says the governor. "We don't ask the US to make our homes, we say come, and hunt your enemies alongside us. But they are very slow about this," says Mushfiq, an appointee of Afghanistan's interim government leader, Hamid Karzai.
Mushfiq says US officials are over-relying on a 17-year-old brother of the deputy governor named Wazir Khan, who told The Associated Press last week that the Hellfire missile struck Al Qaeda fighters - when, in fact, there had been no investigation nor any evidence to support his claim.
Both the governor and the deputy governor, supporters of Afghan King Zahir Shah, blame the US military for acting on bad intelligence - and worse - consorting with their enemy, even in their own presence.
They say that a regular participant in meetings with US officers at the airport is an Afghan commander, Malim Jan, who compiled an appalling human rights record while serving under the Taliban as their security chief in nearby Ghazni Province.
Dozens of Hazara tribesmen in that province said in interviews last week that Commander Jan ran an extortion racket that made him wealthy and saw him overseeing regular torture sessions.
Commander Jan, a short, muscular man in his 30s also admitted to still being enamored of his erstwhile boss, Jalaluddin Haqqani, the local Afghan Al Qaeda chief.
"Malim Jan has been in meetings with the senior US officers on an almost daily basis," says Kamal Khan, deputy governor and provincial military chief. "Everyday, he reports back to Al Qaeda on what the US military is doing in Khost. We've tried to inform [the US], but our words have fallen on deaf ears."
The leader of the regional tribal union, Engineer Mohamad Shah, agrees. "[US forces] spent four weeks in the same building with him," he says. "They are living with their enemies. We believe that when the US military is finished here, they will leave us again to these dangerous barbarians."