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Al Qaeda massing for new fight

Afghan spies say the group has two new bases in Pakistan and is acquiring missiles.

(Page 4 of 4)

The vehicle was full of armed men who could have been friends, foes, or just another group of Afghan men out for a ride.

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But what is certain is that when the vehicle encountered a checkpoint manned by US special forces soldiers on Tuesday night, a gunbattle broke out. US forces say one of the Afghans aimed his Kalashnikov at a US soldier and pulled the trigger. The Afghan's gun jammed, but US soldiers opened fire, killing all four of the Afghan fighters. None of the American soldiers was injured.

But the slain Afghans were friends, not foes. They were soldiers working for the Afghan military chief, the sons of a prominent tribal leader, and should never have been told by US soldiers to disarm, say local military commanders.

Even before the gunfight, tempers in Asadabad were on edge. On Monday, soldiers killed two men who fired at them from a hilltop.

And for the past two weeks, US special forces have been conducting house-to-house searches in this dusty frontier capital of Kunar Province near the Pakistan border, looking for heavy weapons and Al Qaeda supporters. According to top Afghan leaders here, the invasive procedures violate strong Pashtun traditions, which forbid outsiders to enter their homes and see their women.

Afghan merchants, political leaders, and military commanders say that local sentiments are turning sharply against the US forces here.

"So far the relationship with US forces here is just neutral, neither positive nor negative, but it's going in the negative direction," says Acting Gov. Haji Ali Rahman. "We hope the US forces will use their cleverness and change their tactics. But if they continue to search houses, even my own commanders will not work for me."

He smiles through his long grey beard. "The first revolt of the villagers will be against us, because we are the ones who brought the US forces here."

Public anger over the house searches has grown so much that Governor Rahman called an emergency meeting of tribal elders this week in Asadabad, where dozens of Pashtun leaders vented their anger at the Americans. Some leaders called for Afghan forces to stop cooperating with the US forces. This idea was quickly squelched, when the Afghan military chief of the province, Brig. Mohammad Zaman, pointed out that his troops – including the four men killed on Tuesday night – haven't even been asked to conduct joint operations with US forces in anti-Al Qaeda operations.

"Right now they are working with just one warlord, and they aren't getting any results except angering the people," says Brigadier Zaman. "They don't have to pay us, we will fight with our own guns, our own rations. But at least they should listen to us."

Instead, the US forces are working with Commander Zarin, a local warlord who was the first Afghan leader to help the US forces in Kunar Province in the buildup to the fall of the Taliban last November. US military spokesmen at Bagram airfield in Kabul say it is up to local US commanders to decide who to work with, and in many cases the US special forces continue to work with a local warlord they know rather than with leaders deployed by the Kabul government.

"This is a common statement that you hear from local military chiefs, 'Why aren't you working with us?'" says Lt. Col. Roger King, spokesman for the US military at Bagram. "In some cases, our forces have been working with local commanders, or warlords, long before the Ministry of Defense in Kabul was formed. We're in a transitional phase, and you may see some of that coordination shifting over to more official channels."