Up in the undulating hills near the abandoned Zhawar Kili military base, eight young Afghan fighters sit around an old teapot, joking loudly and giggling as they unravel sweets from plastic wrappers. They smile up affectionately at Cmdr. Malim Jan, who served for two years as a senior Taliban intelligence official.
Few Afghan warlords have a clean record, but Commander Jan appears to have one smudged by the Taliban's most repressive activities, including allegations of torture and killing of the Hazara minority in the Ghazni and Bamiyan areas. He now has a new responsibility: helping to seal the border on behalf on the US. Some tribal leaders here warn that's like assigning the fox to guard the henhouse.
Critics say they have warned US special forces commanders, on several occasions, about Commander Jan's political loyalties. Haji Sharif Ullah, a senior government official in Khost, claims that "Malim Jan was, and still is, an agent of Al Qaeda." He adds, "It seems very ironic that he is still in power as the US forces are hunting for Al Qaeda and the Taliban." Jan's appointment, however, was carried out with the approval of US special forces commanders in the area, said senior sources close to the American base here.
Jan, who spoke with the Monitor from his hill fortress several weeks ago, has denied that he had agreed with the policies of the Taliban but admitted that he had worked closely with them in the past.
"I had friends in the Taliban and those friends protected me and gave me a job," he said. Indeed, Jan went on to praise and express immense affection for Jalaluddin Haqqani, a senior Taliban official who is known as a top Al Qaeda operative in the region.
In the "new Afghanistan" of President Hamid Karzai and American firepower, Malim Jan should, in theory, be a has-been and possibly also a prisoner. According to Afghan officials both in Khost and Kabul, Jan was a Taliban commander in the Ghazni region home to several of Osama bin Laden's relatives and a strong contingent of Al Qaeda fighters during the last two years of Taliban rule from 1998 to November of 2001. While in Ghazni, Jan ordered the first shot fired from a tank at the ancient Buddha statues, according to Afghan fighters who were with him in that region.
Now, instead of resting quietly in jail, Jan is commanding 50 of the estimated 400 pro-US Afghan fighters recently stationed all over the roads and valleys near the border of Pakistan to block Al Qaeda from using these routes to regroup or reunite.
The region hasn't yet cooled down. Local Afghan commanders said Sunday morning that rockets were fired at the Khost airport, following a pattern of guerrilla-style rocket ambushes that local commanders say are the work of former Taliban and Al Qaeda elements still operating in the region.
The US forces stationed near Khost have only recently finished up a second combing and demolition exercise among massive Al Qaeda bases in the mountains near Khost, known as Zhawar Kili. After US troops completed two weeks of searches and demolition this week, however, a key post involving the security of the nearby border area, which spills over into the lawless tribal areas of Pakistan, was handed to Jan and his men.
Residents of Khost insist that Jan is a confirmed killer. "He has a lot of enemies, he has killed a lot of innocent people, whomever Haqqani wanted him to," says Qari Baberzai a shopkeeper in Khost, who claims that his own uncle was killed by Jan before the fall of the Taliban last year. "He is now forcing our boys the most handsome ones in Khost to work with him as 'his good friends.'"
Though several Afghan senior commanders working closely with the US military have been forbidden by their US allies from speaking "on the record" to the press, one Afghan working side by side with the American forces said Jan had confused his fellow Afghans by consistently expressing hatred of anyone who worked too closely with the US military.
Several dozen Hazaras gave the Monitor graphic accounts of the torture and murder they had been subjected to by Taliban rulers, many of whom, they complained are still present along with Al Qaeda members in Ghazni Province.
The Hazaras expressed a particular bitterness toward Jan, who, they alleged, led an extortion ring. They described how he drove around Hazara communities and demanded that people produce "hidden Stinger missiles."
When they couldn't produce them, he had his men beat them and demand huge, lump-sum payments. Ghulam Sakhi said he was one of hundreds of Hazaras subjected to Jan's extortion. He lifted up his shirt to show several knife scars on his abdomen, which he said had been inflicted on Jan's orders.