US raids against 'hold-out' regions stir Afghan anger

A possibly errant US missile attack last week is feeding flames of resentment.

The senior Taliban official looked alarmed to see a foreign reporter arrive in a taxi with several armed guards from a neighboring province. Ali Gul, the former military chief of nearby Ghazni province, waved to his fighters to take the reporter's guards out back for a chat.

"You say this man is a reporter, but we know he is a spy," the Pashtun fighters told the guards. "If you dare to have the US miltary bomb us, we know where to find you, and we will kill you and your leaders."

The pocket of Taliban backers in remote Paktika Province along the border with Pakistan is one of many "hold-out" regions of eastern and southern Afghanistan where backing for the fundamentalist militia is still strong.

"Top Taliban officials are now seizing the opportunity to take advantage of the confusion and reassert their authority in many of these areas," says Engineer Ali, Afghanistan's first deputy intelligence chief for national security. "What we really need, more than the hundreds of US forces fighting in this area, is about 10,000 of our own fighters sent down there from Kabul to finish the job."

But with Kabul still controlled by the Northern Alliance, Pashtun tribesmen here say they won't take kindly to that idea.

"Foreign interference is now dividing the country," says Mohamad Ali Jalali, Sharan's town "governor." Mr. Jalali was appointed by local Pashtun tribal chiefs, but not by the central government headed by Western-backed interim government leader Hamid Karzai. "If the US wants to stay longer [militarily] like the Russians did, then we will fight them as we did the Russians."

The "governor's" words are worth considering. In 1979, the jihad against Soviet aggression began in Paktika in a small village named Zerok. One of the two leaders of that initial attack on the Russian army, Jalaluddin Haqqani, is now believed by most locals to be hiding just across the border in Pakistan, eyeing a comeback.

US officials believe Haqqani had ties to Osama bin Laden and was, indeed, a regional leader of the Al Qaeda network.

But the list of US raids on suspected Al Qaeda and Taliban targets in eastern Afghanistan in the past month is not encouraging.

A massive US commando raid on a village that had harbored Jalaluddin Haqqani late last year, took away four suspects, according to villagers from Zeni Khil. The villagers have been begging US commanders to turn over the men, who the villagers claim are innocent.

Another 48-hour US military raid on a nomad village beneath the snow-capped peaks of Tora Bora turned up no suspects at all.

Early last week, unnamed US officials claimed a CIA Hellfire missile probably hit "senior Al Qaeda figures" - but local villagers and senior officials in the Karzai government alleged that the victims were local Afghans salvaging scrap metal. Rear Adm. John Stufflebeem contended Monday that evidence including credit card applications and airline schedules was found at the site. He added that US forces have also collected DNA evidence from the site for further analysis.

In nearby Khost Province, a base of 200 US fighters appears to be expanding by the week. Afghans report that US special forces commanders have asked at least five local warlords to provide 400 "young and fit" fighters to form a new "Anti-Al Qaeda" fighting force.

The intelligence official, Mr. Ali, who has spent several weeks in Khost and the nearby areas in the past two months, says, however, that the force won't be effective.

"In my view, 400 fighters can't do anything," says Ali. "If the US military tries to use them to fight alongside them, US soldiers will end up dead. Tribal bonds in the east and south are stronger than political bonds."

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