In the former royal gardens of exiled Afghan King Zahir Shah, a base camp for fighting terror is going up. Here, among orchards of olive, pomegranate, and apple trees, canvas tents for 600 Afghans and 200 Americans have been pitched, soldiers practice at a mortar firing range, and the mess hall serves three meals a day.
Afghan commanders, who receive salaries of $2,000 a month from the US government, say their new installation is meant as a "model antiterror camp," from which they plan, along with their American allies, to launch operations this spring and summer. The military efforts are aimed at countering a resurgence of Al Qaeda and Taliban, which is already in the making, officers say.
Afghan and US forces relocated here, three miles from the provincial center of Khost, more than a week ago after several mortar and machine-gun attacks on their airport installations closer to the center of Khost.
Afghan and US commanders have both warned of the resurgence of Al Qaeda. A new set of fliers distributed among the neighboring Pashtun population suggests that while close encounters are limited for now a war of words between Osama bin Laden's fighters and the US forces is heating up. The flier, written in the local Pashto language and signed "Holy Warriors of Islam," says $100,000 will be paid for the capture of any foreigner, including soldiers, aid workers, and journalists.
At the Sara Bagh camp, a certain "esprit de corps" appears to be setting in, suggesting that the US and Afghan fighters are already working well together.
A special forces officer with a small gray beard and a checkered kerchief around his neck inspects newly captured machine guns and small mortars seized from local villagers around Khost city.
Back from an extensive search of the Zawar Kili cave complex, an American soldier stands alongside his four-wheel motorbike, extolling its capabilities to young Afghan foot soldiers.
Meanwhile, two Chinook helicopters land on a small runway near the orchards with fresh supplies for the Afghans and Americans. The Afghan soldiers, who make $200 a month, have been offered coats, boots, bags, chest belts, and some hand-held radios for communicating. Their guns, Russian- and Chinese-made, are their own, some of them passed down through their families but others seized from the secret redoubts of Taliban and Al Qaeda in the nearby mountains
At the firing range, recruits shoot rocket-propelled grenades and machine-gun rounds, and, in classrooms, train with US instructors, who explain various modes of attacking hideouts.
Experience is hands-on at camp Sara Bagh. Over the weekend, some 50 American troops escorted by two hundred local fighters, gunship helicopters, and B52 bombers ventured into the Yaqoobi district 18 miles farther north near the village of Pasho Ghar, formerly an important hideout for Al Qaeda renegades.
Pasho Ghar, a black rocky mountain with huge cliffs, small bushes, and sharp peaks, is famous for wildcats most of whom have disappeared in recent years when the area was used as a base by anti-Soviet fighters.
The US and Afghan fighters searched houses and living compounds, but failed to capture any renegade Al Qaeda or Taliban fighters, say Afghan commanders.
Despite a "positive spin" on recent operations in the area delivered by US officers at the airport base of Bagram near Kabul, local Afghan commander Sahib Deen Mangal, a former mujahideen commander and a backer of the current regime, insisted that the search-and-sieze operation should have been carried out higher in the mountains.
"There are no Al Qaeda fighters living inside the houses and residential compounds in these villages, but there is a big number of Al Qaeda up in the mountains," he says.
The Afghan commander suggested a "siege" operation that would first surround the suspected Al Qaeda redoubts. "Al Qaeda is not making a permanent base here or anywhere else, but rather they are staying in an area for a few days and moving on to another," he adds.
Though Al Qaeda fighters appear to operate mostly by night, their numbers are on the rise, according to Afghan residents and nomads.
The only village near Pasho Ghar is Toray Auba, where the residents deny the presence of Arabs in the village but say the guerrillas are roaming the nearby mountains. "Two weeks ago, the main gate of our house was knocked on at midnight, and when I opened the door, I saw armed men standing in front of the door and near the wall of our house, who asked me for food," says Kazim jan Tabbasum, a resident.
"They could only say doodai in Pashto, which means food," the villager said. "They were also reciting a verse from the Koran over and over. I give them some food, because I didn't want trouble."