A Saturday raid on the village of Ab Khail, 10 miles east of this city, started as a routine disarming operation. American special forces and local Afghan fighters were searching house by house for heavy weapons.
But then heavy machine gun fire spilled over the high mud walls of a large family compound. By the time the four-and-half hour gunbattle was over, three Arabs and two Afghans were killed. Five Americans and seven Afghans were injured, two of the Americans seriously injured and evacuated to Germany yesterday, according to US military spokesmen at Bagram Air Base in Kabul.
This is the first major US engagement with suspected Al Qaeda forces since Operation Anaconda last spring, indicating that there are still pockets of resistance along Afghanistan's eastern flank, on the Pakistan border.
"It suggests that we're facing a committed enemy," says Col. Roger King, military spokesman at Bagram. "It suggests what we've tried to say all along, that this is not a quick fix, it's not going to be over tomorrow."
That Americans encountered fierce resistance in Ab Khail is perhaps not surprising. The village was renowned for its large madrassah, or religious seminary, for its conservative culture, and for its close ties with the Taliban and Al Qaeda.
"It was an ambush, and the Arabs planned this," says Raz Mohammad Dalili, governor of Paktia province, and governor for the neighboring provinces of Paktika and Khost.
But disarming the entire Afghan population and particularly Pashtuns, for whom weapons are a sign of power and a form of self-protection could be one of the most dangerous tasks faced by American forces and the transitional government of President Hamid Karzai. Because of the incredibly fluid nature of alliances in Afghanistan, former friends may soon become future rivals and one wrong move can push the entire region to the brink of civil war.
At the center of this region's intrigues is warlord Badshah Khan Zadran, a former truckdriver, Pashtun tribal leader, and militia fighter against the Soviet occupation of 1979-89. Selected by President Karzai last spring to be governor of Paktia because of his role in expelling the Taliban and Al Qaeda from eastern Afghanistan, Badshah Khan was quickly removed from his post after protests from merchants in Gardez and Khost. The central government says it is currently investigating cases of kidnapping, murder, and rape against the warlord, who has denied the charges.
"[Badshah Khan] has been accused of killing and robbing, so if we don't arrest him we are committing a sin," says Interior Minister Taj Mohammad Wardak.
Meanwhile, Badshah Khan's 2,000 men continue to control all major checkposts on the main roads, from the outskirts of Gardez to Khost and on toward the Pakistan border. Six hundred of these men are also part of the Afghan forces used by Americans in anti-Al Qaeda operations in Khost.
Badshah Khan is threatening to use force to remove Governor Dalili, a former intelligence chief for the Northern Alliance and Karzai's fifth appointment for governor of Paktia in as many months.
"We are certain war will be started," says Badshah Khan, sprawled out on carpets under the shade of a chinar tree at his mud-walled compound a mile outside of Gardez. "I don't have any more patience. I will expel all the Northern Alliance from Gardez. It will not be peaceful. It needs fighting."
Badshah Khan also has hard words for Hakim Tanewal, the college professor appointed by Karzai to replace his brother, Kamal Khan Zadran, as governor of neighboring Khost province. To visitors, Governor Tanewal regularly dismisses Badshah Khan with the phrase, "The time of warlords is over."
"They must not call us warlords," says Badshah Khan, leaning forward. "If you call us warlords, we will kill you."
Under pressure from Kabul, Americans have been distancing themselves from Badshah Khan and his men, cutting off pay to most of his forces and conducting most anti-Al Qaeda operations with forces loyal to Governor Tanewal and Khost police chief Mustafa.
But the operation in Ab Khail on Saturday shows that Americans must still rely on the Zadran family, at least on occasion. At Ab Khail, American forces called for hundreds of fighters under the command of Kamal Khan, Badshah's brother, to help surround the enemy compound. Yet just last week, four American tanks showed up at Kamal Khan's compound, the governor's mansion in Khost which he refuses to vacate, and demanded that Kamal Khan's men hand over the weapons and surrender to the new governor, Hakim Tanewal. Kamal Khan refused, and promised to fight if the Americans disarmed him by force.
Kamal Khan says that pro-Taliban elements in Pakistan have begun an extortion campaign against him and Badshah Khan to pay compensation for the deaths of thousands of Pakistani Taliban supporters from the tribal areas along the Afghan border. One group of Pakistanis, including the nephew of top Taliban commander Jalaluddin Haqqani, visited Kamal's home in Miranshah, Pakistan, and said if Kamal Khan didn't pay "ransom" money, then the relatives of the dead Taliban supporters would return and kill Kamal Khan's family.
With the Zadran family increasingly encircled, the chances of a bloody confrontation rise daily. But while many commanders say they haven't been paid by Badshah Khan for nearly seven months, most say they will remain loyal to the only Pashtun leader who fought against Al Qaeda in the early part of the war.
Material from The Associated Press was used in this report.