Al Qaeda hunt: violent shell game
British-led forces sweep through eastern mountains, but their 'enemy' may be local tribes sniping at one another.
KHOST, AFGHANISTAN — From the air and from special-forces positions on the ground, it probably looked like a dangerous Al Qaeda group fighting yet another last stand.
It led some 1,000 British-led troops to spend the weekend sweeping through the mountains of eastern Afghanistan in Operation Condor. They are in pursuit of what officials call a "significant number" of Al Qaeda fighters who attacked an Australian patrol last Thursday. On Sunday, the operation was still under way.
But Afghan allies interviewed in Khost paint an entirely different portrait of Operation Condor: It's another tragic case of mistaken identity and poor communication in the Afghan war.
There were no Al Qaeda fighters there, according to villagers in Chambagh, a village about 20 miles northeast of Khost. Australian commandos were simply caught in the crossfire of two local tribes fighting over a mountain with no name.
On Thursday night, US AC-130 and helicopter gunships came to their rescue, pounding the mountaintop for 20 minutes. The result was 10 Afghans dead, three seriously injured, and another 12 villagers missing. None are Al Qaeda or Taliban fighters.
This is not the first misunderstanding between the US-led coalition and local Afghans. A few months ago in this area, an unmanned CIA spy plane fired a missile at a man who US forces suspected was Osama bin Laden; he turned out to be an unusually tall shepherd. But local Afghans, most of whom support the US-led troops here, say the US military must do a better job of communicating with local commanders and understanding tribal politics. Otherwise Afghan support for US troops will diminish sharply.
"The Americans can avoid this kind of mistake if they can contact the local commanders who know the area," says Ghazi Navaz Tani, a Khost government spokesman.
But others here are more understanding. "We cannot blame either the Americans or the villagers, because the US special forces ... didn't know about this tribal dispute," says Soor Gul, the security chief for Khost. "When they saw firing from the air, they thought these people were firing on them."
At Bagram Air Force base, near Kabul, a US military spokesmen says the forces in Khost were involved in a standard cleanup operation at a major "transit point" for Al Qaeda and the Taliban when the firing took place.
"Usually people who fire at you are enemies," Maj. Bryan Hilferty told a press conference at Bagram on Saturday. When asked if it was possible that the fighting was just another local dispute, he responded, "It's possible."
But when asked if the firing into the air could be an Afghan wedding celebration as Pakistani press reported Major Hilferty replied: "They were firing at us, and then they chased us for a few hours. Where I'm from, that's not a wedding."
The trouble started at 4:30 p.m. on Thursday, when two US helicopters appeared, just as members of the Sabri and Mangal tribes were exchanging gun fire from their positions on the mountain. Both tribes say they had seen US helicopters in the area before, and assumed it was a routine patrol. Neither tribe realized that the helicopters were providing air support for a patrol of Australian special forces.
The Australians and the helicopters fled the area, but when the Australian patrol continued to take fire from the mountaintop, they called in air support. At 10 p.m., three US AC-130 gunships and two US helicopters arrived and fired rockets on the Sabri positions, killing 10 of the Sabri men, most of them teenagers. Two other Sabris and one Mangal tribe member were injured seriously, and a half dozen others are still missing.
At the governor's guesthouse in Khost, the temporary headquarters of Gov. Abdel Hakim Taniwal, village elders from Chambagh arrived on Friday to beg the governor to intervene with US forces and call off any future bombing of the mountain.
Haji Mohammed Hanif, an elder of the Sabri tribe, says he doesn't understand why the US forces fired on his men even after his tribe had informed US special forces in Khost that they had armed men stationed on the mountain, and had provided maps of their positions.
"We are very disappointed, very unhappy. We don't know why US forces are killing us," says Mr. Hanif. "After the attack, we took the US ground troops up to the mountain and showed them the direction of our guns, to prove that it was not us who fired on the helicopter."
The Sabris and the Mangal tribes blame each other for firing at the US helicopters and drawing the US attack.
The mountain, which sits right between the Sabri and Mangal villages, is a prized source of timber in a country that suddenly has a reason to rebuild itself after 23 years of war.
Like a deadly game of king of the mountain, the Sabri-Mangal dispute has raged off and on for nearly 60 years. During the mujahideen government of the early 1990s, the Sabri tribe won possession of the mountain through a government-mediated treaty. But when the Taliban took control in 1996, the Mangal tribe took the mountain back. When the Taliban fell last fall, the Sabris reclaimed the mountain.
Then, late Thursday, a local land dispute turned into something more global. "Two helicopters were hovering over the mountain, when somebody behind us on the mountain fired bullets into the air," says Rambell Khan, a Sabri member who says he saw it all from his village.
"For a small village like ours, the loss of 10 men is a big thing. We don't blame anybody, but if they do that to us again, it will be difficult for us to defend our territory," says Mr. Hanif, the Sabri elder.
On the other side of the mountain, the Mangals are taking pleasure in their rival tribe's loss.
"It is good news for us, because they have occupied our land," says Salim Jan, a spokesman for the Mangal tribe. "The US jets pounded those positions from where they were shot. It was very precise."
"The US forces are always on patrol in the area, and we cooperate with them, but the Sabris shot and fired in the air," Mr. Jan says. "Now they have faced the music."
For his part, regional Governor Taniwal says he will try to mediate between the tribes and the US forces to prevent any more incidents. "Maybe this was an intrigue, where one of the parties was firing shots so that the American forces would bomb the other side," says Taniwal. "The US doesn't want to be involved in disputes like this."
Reporter Lutfullah Mashal contributed to this report from Khost, Afghanistan.