US special forces in eastern Afghanistan have shunned overtures for assistance from local Pashtun warlords as they step up their efforts to flush out remaining Al Qaeda and Taliban members.
Two dozen Green Berets moved their base Tuesday from a schoolhouse to a military airport littered with the rusting hulks of Soviet cargo planes out of security fears - and possibly, in anticipation of a fresh push to capture senior Al Qaeda and Taliban fugitives on the run in the area.
The US military decision not to use "proxy" Afghan warriors thus far in their fighting in Khost and Paktia Provinces is a departure from an earlier military strategy at Tora Bora in neighboring Ningahar Province. There, thousands of Afghans were sent into the mountains to root out and kill the Al Qaeda fighters and capture Osama bin Laden.
But Mr. bin Laden and 1,000 to 2,000 other Al Qaeda members escaped the area. ABC News reported Monday night that CIA analysts have concluded that bin Laden escaped from his hideout in Tora Bora during the first week of December, briefly stopped over in Pakistan, then may have escaped by ship. But a CIA spokeswoman in Washington later denied that report.
Several hundred US Marines have been shuttling back and forth from their base near the southern city of Kandahar to the outskirts of the Al Qaeda base at Zawar Kili in Khost Province. The US has relentlessly bombed that area since early January. The strikes have reportedly destroyed some 60 buildings and sealed about 50 caves. Special forces have searched the caves and buildings for intelligence information and are now looking at other targets.
"We're coming to a conclusion in this particular complex, and we'll probably look for another complex," said Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. John Stufflebeem in Washington.
But regional and provincial governors are now warning that the fight to capture hundreds of suspected terrorists is doomed to fail without the help of tribal leaders.
They say the US "go it alone" strategy is fraught with peril and hardship. And several of these tribal leaders described - and criticized - the unexpected deployment of US forces two weeks ago.
They say that the special forces arrived in helicopters on the first of the year. Pashtun tribesmen surrounded the airport and nearly opened fire, but later backed off when a top Kabul intelligence official, Engineer Ali, stepped out of one of the helicopters and began to explain the US mission to destroy terror bases and catch fleeing Al Qaeda and Taliban members.
After seizing control of a local schoolhouse, the American Green Berets, led by a tall, burly, somewhat enigmatic commander, known only to the Afghans as "General John," dropped by for lunch a few days later to tell local tribesmen that US forces would be launching secret ground operations in the nearby mountains.
In the meeting, recorded on videotape by the tribesmen, "General John" promised the Afghans that the US government is interested in rebuilding schools and renovating the airport. But while "General John" and his top advisers were meeting with local leaders on Jan. 4, Al Qaeda sympathizers attacked a small party of Americans, including one CIA officer, killing Sgt. 1st Class Nathan Chapman, a Green Beret. The US contingent had been visiting a destroyed mosque just outside the city, where several dozen Al Qaeda members and local Afghans had been killed by a US airstrike about three weeks earlier.
A week into the new year, some 200 US Marines from their southern base in Kandahar arrived to launch ground attacks on the Al Qaeda Zawar Kili base, but, so far, they have refused help from local Pashtun warlords. They have, however, had several limited successes, capturing several Al Qaeda and Taliban members as well as what the Pentagon officials have described as crucial intelligence contained on mobile phones.
Despite the alleged lack of cooperation, Pashtun leaders say they are trying to help the US forces. The local security chief, Mohamad Mustafa, who has long fighting experience with the anti-Soviet resistance, had his men arrest three cousins of the killer of the US Green Beret. They are being held in jail - as local tradition dictates - as "hostages" until the escaped murder suspect returns from Pakistan's tribal areas and owns up to his crime.
Gov. Badshah Khan, a Pashtun royalist with one eyebrow that runs the length of his forehead and an equally impressive handlebar mustache that curls across his upper lip, says he fears that local tribal chiefs, angry with the US attacks, are now plotting to oust him. He warned, in an interview, that Al Qaeda sympathizers might also try to attack the two dozen US special forces stationed here in Khost.
Governor Khan complained that US forces - who could be seen manning machinegun posts on an airport control tower Tuesday as local fighters held the perimeter - are ignoring him. "If Americans are really interested in removing Al Qaeda, instead of destroying our tribal structure and creating differences between our people, they have to help the powerful ones - like me - not just the Northern Alliance from Kabul, which is trying to undermine our rule," he said. "I didn't believe before all this that the Americans could be so foolish - bombing villages instead of military targets. They are repeating some of the mistakes of Tora Bora all over again."
The governor, a long-time friend of Afghanistan's King Zahir Shah, said he has warned the Americans not to "go it alone" in the area with the assistance of Northern Alliance intelligence officials, who remain unpopular in the Pashtun-dominated provinces that border on Pakistan.
"The errant bombing is about to create an uprising, and if it does, I'll resign and leave the US forces to their fate," added the governor, whose mandate stretches across three provinces, including Khost, Paktia, and Paktika. "It is irresponsible for the Americans to behave like this with my own people now accusing me of directing the airstrikes that are killing civilians."
The US forces operating in the area are under orders from the Pentagon not to speak with reporters.
They face a daunting task to root out extremism in a province that was at the center of the anti-Soviet "holy war" and still has strong links to fundamentalist sects in the Middle East.
The notorious Al Qaeda military chief of the Tora Bora base, the Yemeni Abdul Qadoos, is, according to locals, now operating in the area. Jalaluddin Haqqani, the Taliban's armed forces chief for Southern Afghanistan, is also believed by senior Afghan officials to be there, or just across the border in Pakistan.
A new blue-domed mosque, one of the most spectacular in Afghanistan, which dominates the skyline in the regional capital, Khost, is the work of Mr. Haqqani, the Taliban's Southern military commander.
Although British-led peacekeepers in Kabul have distributed documents saying that the wily anti-Soviet fighter is "reported killed in action," local leaders say that Haqqani, a prominent Al Qaeda member himself, escaped heavy bombing that killed two dozen of his men and family members, with only an injured hand.
Senior Kabul government officials, still loyal to the Tajik- and Uzbek-dominated Northern Alliance, warned over the weekend that the US would need to send "thousands, not hundreds," of combatants into Eastern Afghanistan if they hoped to finally flush out the Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters.
But Governor Khan suspects it's a conspiracy to undermine his own authority - especially if more US forces arrive and his fighters and advice continue to be ignored. He says that Haqqani remains a popular force in the region and can only be neutralized if the US starts working with local tribal chiefs and funding their efforts to rebuild the region.