About 85 US Marines in light-brown camouflage and 15 other Western fighters clothed in black leapt from helicopters onto the bumpy tarmac of the Khost airport yesterday. And Afghanistan's minister for frontier and tribal affairs announced an imminent "Al Qaeda cleansing" campaign in eastern Afghanistan.
Later in the day, the US troops manned machine-gun posts atop a control tower, patrolled the immediate perimeter of the airport, and oversaw the work of local Afghans who were renovating the airstrip. Several new yellow and orange tents popped up on top of the airport terminal and behind it on the edge of a small forest.
The newly arrived soldiers joined a special-forces team that has been here since early January. Afghan commanders and re- gional officials say they are now planning a major new push in the region to capture elusive Al Qaeda members.
"We've decided to go after the pockets of remaining Al Qaeda here, but we can't say when the operations will begin for matters of secrecy," says Minister Aman Khan Zadran, Afghanistan's most senior official for frontier and tribal affairs. The minister is the brother of the regional Pashtun governor, Badshah Khan.
It isn't clear yet that the US military, which has denied even sending more troops to the region in the wake of the killing of one US officer, is operating in tandem with the local Afghan leaders.
But on Tuesday, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said that he believed that Osama bin Laden himself was still present in Afghanistan, although there has been increased speculation this week that the man responsible for the Sept. 11 terror attacks against the US may have fled the region.
And several senior Afghan officers say that the US special forces have begun talking to them about providing "special training" to local fighters.
"Maybe they are going to teach us to jump out of airplanes with parachutes or just use some of their high-tech equipment," says Cmdr. Sakhi Jan Wafadar, a renowned anti-Soviet fighter who is helping the US military secure the airport from possible terrorist attacks. "I think that what all this means, though, is that the Americans now understand that there are well-trained Al Qaeda and Taliban fighters along the border with Pakistan who can easily regroup and make trouble for us. I think they will train us to attack their hideouts."
Despite the new talk of "training" though, the US military has avoided using Afghan proxies in its fight in the three key provinces of Khost, Paktia, and Paktika. Here, the US - in a departure from the strategy it used in the Tora Bora area to try to capture bin Laden - has shunned the offers of help from local warlords.
That is most likely because of the Tora Bora experience. Several Afghan warlords, while on the US payroll to help capture Al Qaeda and Taliban operatives, cut deals with Al Qaeda members at the same time and helped them escape.
But the secretive US forces here say they are not ruling out the possibility of working more closely with the Afghans.
A polite and somber-looking US special forces commander, known to the locals simply as "General John," has remained friendly with Afghan commanders and told them that the US military may, eventually, call on them to help fight Al Qaeda.
In a meeting with senior Afghan commanders, recorded on videotape and observed by this reporter, General John, dressed neatly in Western civilian clothes with his head covered in a black cap, listens patiently to the concerns of the Afghans. He remains calm and unemotional during his meeting with warm, hospitable Pashtun warlords.
The Afghans say that General John and the American special forces have made "lots of promises so far" for financial assistance. They complain, however, that little help has arrived.
They point to a dank and chilly hospital ward beside the former Al Qaeda base in town.
Twelve-year-old Anwar Ullah is recovering from injuries he received during a US bombing raid that injured four members of his family. Doctors at the hospital estimate that 100 to 150 civilians in Khost Province have been killed in similar air raids, and they say that possibly hundreds more were killed in the nearby Paktia Province.
So far, neither Western aid agencies - nor the US special forces members - have dropped into the hospital to ask local administrators what they need to care for the injured and sick.
"After the war with the Soviets, we had a Saudi relief agency providing for most of our needs," says Mohamad Qasim, the hospital's director. "But when this war with Al Qaeda started, all that money dried up, and we can't even pay salaries to our nurses or doctors. The real problem is that we are the only hospital within 150 square miles, since the border with Pakistan has now been sealed for patients wishing to travel outside for care."
After a decade of war against Soviet occupation that left hundreds of thousands dead and an equal number of persons disabled for life in eastern Afghanistan, the West severed many of its humanitarian links here.
Al Qaeda, on the other hand, pumped heavy resources into its battle for the hearts and minds of the local population. Arab jihad fighters, working with a web of Islamic charities, many of them with militant aims, ensconced themselves in the community. In exchange for financial assistance funneled through the same Middle Eastern - mainly Saudi channels - that worked with the CIA in the anti-Soviet battle, Islamic militants in the Al Qaeda network enhanced their popularity and influence here.
The largest mosque in the city was built with funds raised by the Taliban's Southern military commander, Jalaluddin Haqqani. Khost's medical centers have been funded for years by money from Saudi fundamentalists.