The Al Qaeda fighter knelt behind the rocks, his finger poised on the trigger. Below him on a sandy plateau stood two more Arab fighters with enough grenades to blow up a fleet of trucks.
A tall, thin fighter with a wavy, black beard and parched lips, spoke in Arabic. "Who are you? If you can help us, we can talk." A comrade, also strapped with explosives, wore a black backpack and chewed nervously on a piece of dried bread.
The brief encounter with three Al Qaeda fighters took place in the mountains outside Khost yesterday. It was a glimpse of the desperate straits into which Osama bin Laden's elite warriors have now fallen.
The 20-something fighters, who were hiding in a mud-and-stone nomad village along a camel path that runs out of the Tora Bora Al Qaeda base, both threatened and begged for help to escape Afghanistan.
Then came what sounded like a plea for sympathy. "The enemies of Islam have broken our backbone; our people are abandoning us and we have dispersed like orphans in the valleys," said the tall Arab fighter, his clothes soiled from weeks on the run and his head covered in a woolen Afghan beret. "Have you seen any of our comrades going in any other directions?" The drone of a US jet sounded overhead, and the Arab said. "Go, go! Keep our secret as a secret."
Further down the valley, four Afghan boys, aged 9 to 14, stood near a woodpile, still laughing at their windfall of a day before.
A US helicopter had landed in their midst. Out jumped 13 US commandos in brown camouflage. The frightened boys ran for their lives but were rounded up at gunpoint, they said. The boys pleaded their innocence through the Americans' Afghan interpreter. Then, a US soldier reached into his pocket, explaining, "Sorry, we thought you were Al Qaeda," tore out four $50-dollar bills and handed them to the boys.
As Washington sets its sights on rooting out Al Qaeda renegades, the game of cat and mouse in the remote corners of Afghanistan is heating up. But local Pashtun military commanders are warning that the last renegades won't be rooted out until the US military decides to work with the local population. That strategy of working with local proxy armies, however, failed the Pentagon only last December at the battle for Tora Bora, when Mr. bin Laden and several key lieutenants escaped the US net.
In an operation 60 miles north of Kandahar yesterday, a US special forces commando was wounded in a raid on an Al Qaeda cell in which a number of suspected Al Qaeda fighters were killed or captured, according to an Agence France -Presse report.
Earlier this week, nearly 100 US commandos swooped down on the village of Zeni Khil and searched three homes for clues to the whereabouts of the region's most-powerful Al Qaeda commander, Jalaluddin Haqqani, an Afghan who is also the Taliban's southern military commander. The US forces took four men off to Kandahar for questioning. Afghan military and intelligence sources say that Mr. Haqqani is in hiding just over the border in Pakistan, but is scheming to return to his old fiefdom.
Rival warlords in the regional center, Khost, barely averted a gun battle this week when fighters loyal to Zakim Khan tried to seize both the local intelligence office and the radio station. Fighters dove for cover and prepared to open fire.
Commander Khan, whose fighters eventually backed down, said yester-day, in an interview, that he had warned his fellow tribesmen to expel all Al Qaeda fighters from their villages or prepare to fight.
"Al Qaeda is into a 'run and hide' mode now, but that doesn't mean they have been finished," said Zakim Khan, a black-and-white-turbaned Pashtun commander who has been working with US Special Forces based in Khost. "They are hiding in remote forests and valleys and what is needed to root them out is sophisticated intelligence on the one hand and Pashtun unity on the other."
But Khost is a place where Soviet-era war heroes still hold great sway over the local population. The giant, blue-domed mosque in the center of town was opened by the region's most dominant strongman, Mr Haqqani, who has a long, prosperous friendship with Osama bin Laden. Mr Haqqani is also known as the local "Al Qaeda chief."
The Al Qaeda fighters encountered in a remote nomad's village yesterday were staying in an area where Mr. Haqqani still holds sway. Local Afghans said the Arabs were climbing deeper into the mountains around the district of Zarmat in Paktia Province, where US Special Forces have stepped up house-to-house searches to flush them out.
Though the Pentagon has complained that local Pashtun commanders have not been helpful in the hunt for Al Qaeda, locals here blame the US military for a heavy-handed bombing campaign that has reportedly killed scores of innocents. Pashtun villagers also complain that the US forces are often using ethnic Tajik and Uzbek fighters to do the searching of local homes in which their women go unveiled.
Both the governor, Badshah Khan, and his rival, Commander Zakim Khan, deny that they have been giving "intelligence" to the American forces that has resulted in local fury toward US policies. Both men claim to be willing and able to assist the Americans in a more thorough search for remaining Al Qaeda cells. In downtown Khost, however, fighters loyal to both men remained poised for a possible confrontation Thursday even as tribal elders met to try to calm rivalries.