For weeks, US forces hunted Hazrat Jamal. They came to his house in Sawai and bothered villagers, but he was about a half-hour away in Khost City selling cars. The Americans suspected he was tied to a recent bombing, one of a growing number in this unstable province.
But Mr. Jamal's neighbor, Shamsulrachman, suspects that the Marines were duped by bad intelligence. A hotly contested land dispute has pitted the villagers of Sawai against some local officials - some of whom work closely with US forces - and Jamal is fighting the case in court. With him out of the picture, Shamsulrachman says, the case would fizzle.
Deciding between legitimate tips and erroneous leads that result from local score-settling has been an ongoing problem for US operations in Afghanistan. In July 2002, bad intelligence led to the US bombing of an Afghan wedding party that killed some 35 civilians.
More than three years into the mission, US officials in Afghanistan admit they still cannot always separate truth from vendetta. Given the long history of tribal feuds in southern Afghanistan, Afghans insist that American forces must ask more questions before raiding villages, as well as keep a closer eye on their local allies.
Here in Khost, mullahs and villagers say their patience is evaporating with US raids and arrests triggered by bad tips. If the US incursions continue, they say, they will have no choice but to resist.
Security is a top concern here, where armed men crouch along mountain roads in the blowing dust, carrying Kalashnikovs to ward off neighboring troublemakers. For villagers, some of the worst troublemakers are members of the Khost Provincial Force (KPF), many of whom were former Communist sympathizers during the Soviet occupation, while many village elders and mullahs were on the other side of the civil war. The KPF works with the 1,500 US troops in the province, providing intelligence, and looking into leads. Villagers say that the KPF is abusing its authority and uses its ties with US forces to settle old wartime grudges.
"I was a mujahid fighter. A [Communist fighter] killed my son, I killed his son. Now [the KPF] are giving wrong information to the coalition forces. They are taking revenge for what we did during the holy war," says Mullah Hanif Shah, the head of the mullah council of Khost Province.
The commander of the KPF, Ghafar Khan, denies this. He insists that five different, independent people confirm any information his forces receive before it is given to coalition forces. Mr. Khan said recently that the relationship between the mullahs and the KPF is improving.
But the relationship that most concerns tribal leader Mullah Shah is with fellow tribesmen. They have been telling him that continuing to allow US forces into the village without resistance would breach the Pashtun code of ethics: Pashtunwali.
One solution, according to Aziz Ahmad Rahmand, the head of contemporary Afghan history at Kabul University, is for coalition forces to surround a village, then go in and ask about militant activity.
But Capt. K.C. Barr, a commander with the 3rd Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment in Khost, says that's too risky. "It depends on the individual you're going after," he says. For some wanted suspects, "you don't want to let on anything you're doing."
First Marine Sgt. Robert Guthrie, who works in many Khost villages, admits that it's hard to determine when tips are bad. "If one family gives information about weapons, the only way to do it is to go in and be professional. If it's a bad tip, you apologize for the inconvenience," he says.
He also says that it's often not the Marines who offend the people, but the local forces. He also hinted that the more aggressive US forces do not have green vehicles like the Marines, but tan ones. This, presumably, refers to the US Army.
The experiences of Shamsulrachman, the villager in Sawai, suggest differences in treatment. He says marines searched his house recently and found nothing. But when they discovered a shell casing outside of a neighbor's house that he says dated from the Soviet era, they told him they were going to arrest him. He says the Marines were civil, but the Afghan forces who later took custody of him pointed a gun at his face, swore at him, and called him a terrorist.
As for his neighbor, Jamal, Captain Barr's company finally caught up with him and concluded that he was innocent.
Moreover, the Marines may help him settle his land dispute.