It was in the lobby of a Jalalabad hotel two weeks ago that Hayat Ullah, a senior Al Qaeda financier, was overheard negotiating the safe passage of three Arabs with Commander Hazrat Ali, an Afghan on the US government's payroll.
While the Al Qaeda financier was relying on Commander Ali to protect the Arabs, the US government was relying on him to relay intelligence about the movements of Al Qaeda members. Ali, who subsequently conducted the "sharp end" of the Pentagon's offensive against Tora Bora, last week accused his rival, Haji Zaman Ghamsharik, of making the same kinds of deals for Al Qaeda members.
The government's use of local warlords highlights the problems that the US faces in weeding out Al Qaeda operatives here and around the world. While collaboration with anti-Taliban tribal leaders has been key, the best success has come with the use of US ground forces.
"The US government's plan to overthrow the Taliban and uproot Al Qaeda has been breathtakingly successful so far," says Charles Heyman, editor of Jane's World Armies. But he warns against over-relying on third parties, which are paid for information, because they only "tell you what you want to hear. You can't trust them. The actual hunt for top Al Qaeda operatives will probably now have to be done by our own coalition forces."
Saif Ullah, a major in the Pakistani intelligence services until 1998 and, more recently, a consultant for NBC News, says the US government needs to be more aware of the constantly shifting loyalties on the ground if its campaign is to be successful.
For instance, he says, he is "110 percent sure that [Commander] Ullah is working for Al Qaeda. His brothers, Wali and Rooh, who run charity fronts for Al Qaeda in Kunar province, used to deal directly with me when I was in the Pakistani intelligence services," he says. "The charities that he and his brothers are running fed money directly to bin Laden and his associates."
The US's bombing of a convoy last Thursday may serve as yet another cautionary tale about placing too much trust in local warlords. The Pentagon claims the convoy had been full of Taliban and Al Qaeda operatives. But tribal leaders in Peshawar and neighboring Paktia province insisted this weekend that the bombing, which killed an estimated 50 Afghans, had been a case of mistaken identity.
"These were tribal elders on their way to the presidential inauguration" of Hamid Karzai, says Pir Sayed Ishaq Gailani, an exiled Paktia resident, whose children reside in the United States. "The convoy had been diverted from the main road when a rival tribal leader forced them into the mountains to take an alternate route." Residents claim that the rival had supplied the false information to the Pentagon.
"There is no doubt in their [US military's Central Command] mind that they hit what they wanted to hit, and that it was the bad guys," Marine Lieut.-Col. Dave Lapan, a Pentagon spokesman, said in Washington.
The incident puts President Karzai, who was sworn into office Saturday, on extremely fragile footing, as he struggles to bring order to a country in which there is an ongoing war.
"If American warplanes make another aggressive attack on Khost, then we will take armed measures against Karzai's administration," one local Pashtun tribal chieftain warned yesterday.
Meanwhile, there are still many pockets of resistance in Kabul, including hideouts of bin Laden associates and the Taliban.
The Paktia incident bears the marking of another controversial US bombing raid in early December that killed dozens of supporters of an Afghan warlord who was on the Pentagon's payroll. Later, when the US military put from 20 to 50 special forces on the ground near Tora Bora, the US bombing grew far more accurate - much as was the case in Kabul.
Pentagon planners are now focusing on what they call "emerging targets." Western defense analysts say the new targets will require increasingly precise intelligence information that can only be gained by having more "eyes on the ground."
Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld appeared to acknowledge this last week, when he announced the deployment of more US forces to the Tora Bora region to search through caves for intelligence on Al Qaeda activities and movements.
The US has been encouraging governments to pursue Al Qaeda sympathizers, and has offered military aid ranging from logistical support to Special Forces troops. On Thursday, the US gave the Philippines five military trucks and hundreds of mortars, grenade launchers, and sniper rifles. And two weeks ago, the US sent nine intelligence officials to Somalia, investigating possible Al Qaeda links.
Even more challenging than conflicting loyalties will be discerning the peculiar links between charity and terrorism, says Ullah, the former Pakistini intelligence major. In late October, Pakistani officials interrogated two nuclear scientists who had met with bin Laden. Sultan Bashir-ud-Din Mehmood and Abdul Majid had worked for Pakistan's Atomic Energy Commission until retiring in 1999 and setting up the charity organization Tameer-e-Ummah (UTN).
Ullah contends that the charity was created and backed by the Saudi and Pakistani governments as a way to funnel nuclear information between Islamic states.
The pair met with bin Laden and his top lieutenants over two or three days in August in Kabul. Pakistani officials later said the talks were "academic." But Ullah insists that UTN was a multinational organization with numerous members around the world. Last week, the US government put UTN on its list of individuals and groups that it considers "supporters of terrorism.''