Al Qaeda's village lifeline

Zerok becomes a nocturnal beehive for supplying guerrillas holed up and plotting in nearby mountains.

By day, this is a lively village where young and old imbibe rumors along with cups of tea. But when the sun goes down, the town becomes a sea of clandestine activity: Pick-up trucks race into the mountains, carrying supplies to remote Al Qaeda bases.

Many of Zerok's residents are seen as heroes for their role in launching the initial attacks on Soviet-supported Afghan bases in 1979. Now, this remote village, which traditionally divides eastern and southern Afghanistan, is again becoming a nexus for a holy war aimed at ousting the new foreigners. But, in contrast to the situation 22 years ago, there are signs of growing local resistance to the campaign against foreigners.

Twenty-two miles west of the city of Khost, Zerok is set in terrain marked by high mountains, deep valleys, and natural cave complexes covered with bushes and pine trees – excellent hiding places for guerrilla fighters. Until 1990, the village was inaccessible to cars and buses. Most locals still use mules and camels for transportation through the narrow canyons and steep mountains.

In a roadside cafe, decorated with posters bearing photos of former mujahideen commanders, destroyed Russian tanks and black-and-white portraits of the martyrs of the war against Soviets, an old man with a lengthy white beard and a silky golden turban, a Kalashnikov lying under his right leg, says that a return of Afghanistan's exiled king might well calm what he sees as a deteriorating situation. "We respect our traditions, and if our king, Zahir Shah, does not return, then these foreign forces (American and British) are going to seize control of everything," he says.

Two young men seated nearby speak with bitterness toward the American and British troops who are combing nearby villages in search of weapons and Al Qaeda renegades. "They won't dare to come here to Zerok," says one man, drinking tea. "We will teach them a lesson which they will never forget - the same one we taught the Russians."

To the north of Zerok is Shah-e Kot, a series of mountains where highly mobile Al Qaeda guerrillas clashed with US and Afghan forces last month before fleeing here to an area that has far better links to the Pakistani border. By foot, it is only a five-hour walk into the Pakistani tribal areas.

Signs of Al Qaeda's presence are not easy to confirm in Zerok, but at night the village is abuzz with activity. Armed men who largely keep inside mud-walled residential compounds by day feel free to move around at night. In the same cafe where the old man calls for the return of the exiled king, a fighter strapped with grenades and several magazines for his Kalashnikov comes in from the dark, speaking in Arabic, a sure sign that he is not a local ethnic Pashtun from the Zadran tribe.

With several other turbaned fighters, the tall man sits for tea and a quick bite before leaping back into a pickup that speeds up a mountain with its lights off, an apparent effort to disguise its movement from aerial surveillance.

North of Kabul, at the Bagram Air Base, a British military intelligence officer says that Al Qaeda and Taliban fighters are lying low in Afghanistan as they plot a renewed assault on US-led coalition forces. Speaking as the first 100 of 1,700 special British mountain fighters arrive at the base, Maj. Tony de Reya says members of the ultra-Islamic groups are likely in a "tactical pause" before "the next phase of their campaign."

The Al Qaeda network, blamed by Washington for the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States, "still sits hand-in-hand with the Taliban," de Reya says.

The remnants suffered heavy losses around the Shah-e Kot Valley in eastern Afghanistan during "Operation Anaconda" last month, but de Reya says they were regrouping. "There are large groupings of Al-Qaeda/Taliban in certain areas of operation (across the country)."

Since 1979, Zerok has not lost its allure as a would-be base for militants. There are no formal public schools or hospitals, not even a recognizable government office. Instead, there are numerous madrassas, or religious schools, which teach young boys little beyond the Koran and the concepts of holy war.

Local leaders are considered conservative – often fundamentalist in their beliefs – and the man leading them, say villagers, is the same one who launched the war against Soviet occupation. Jalaluddin Haqqani, the target of several US military raids in the area in recent months, visited Zerok over the weekend to rally his Al Qaeda's forces, locals say.

Residents in Zerok still fondly recall the day in 1979 that their village was used to launch the war against the foreigners and their so-called "Afghan puppets." "It was spring, and the weather was a bit warmer than in winter, when Haqqani brought a RPG7 rocket launcher from Pakistan," says Ghulam Nabi a former mujahideen fighter who took part in the 1979 attack against the military check post in Zerok. "Haqqani chose 10 fighters to take part in that attack, I was one of them. We had seven guns, two pistols and one rocket."

But Nabi, who owns a small shop in Zerok now, says that it won't necessarily be a model for the fight against the British or the Americans.

"The situation is quite different, now," he says. "At that time we had very good support from our people, but now these militants have no local support. The Russian air fire was not very targeted, but this time the big planes are very dangerous, they hit the target very well."

Still, Nabi, who has watched Al Qaeda's build-up around Zerok, says that the new guerrilla army roving in the nearby mountains, has plenty of weapons. "They have enough arms and ammunition. They have rocket launchers, mortars, cannons and heavy machine guns. ... Even if they are not able to take power, they will create headaches for both Karzai and US-led coalition forces in Afghanistan. With external support – if they have it – they will be very dangerous."

• Material from wire services was used in this report.

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