11 September 2001>News Stories>Debate Over U.S. Raid on Convoy Exposes Fluid Loyalties in Area Shaken By War

Debate Over U.S. Raid on Convoy Exposes Fluid Loyalties in Area Shaken By War
Amy Waldman . NYTimes . 28 December

Amanullah Zadran, second from right, the minister of borders for the interim government of Afghanistan, meeting in his office in Kabul with tribal representatives from Paktia Province.

KABUL, Afghanistan, Dec. 27 — The tribal council of Paktia Province convened a news conference today at which its members insisted that the American airstrike last week on a convoy in Paktia was a mistake. Contrary to American claims, they said, the convoy contained no Al Qaeda members, but rather tribal elders en route to Kabul to pay homage to the country's new leader, Hamid Karzai.

"A spy told them they were Taliban," the group's spokesman, Abdul Hakim Munib, said, suggesting that false information was fed to the Americans to provoke the attack, which the elders said killed 15 convoy passengers and 50 people in surrounding villages.

Further statements indicated a more complicated reality.

Had anyone in the convoy been Taliban members at any time? Mr. Munib was asked.

"I myself was a deputy minister for communications, border and transport under the Taliban regime," he answered, adding: "They were with Taliban. I was with Taliban." He gestured at the assembled elders: "All the people you are seeing here were with Taliban."

The American attack on the convoy has laid bare the complex and fluid allegiances that shape life in Paktia. The Taliban came, Pashtun tribal leaders joined with them, and now the Taliban are gone. And so it is that a former Taliban deputy minister is now in Kabul to pay his respects to the government that came to power fighting it.

But negotiating such changes is not a simple matter, and Paktia is, in some ways, feeling the fall of the Taliban harder than most. The Americans have been bombing because the province has long harbored Al Qaeda bases. The Taliban's defeat has intensified tribal rivalries. And then came the attack on the convoy, which the Pentagon continues to say was a legitimate target.

In Washington today, Gen. Richard B. Myers, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said, "We have nothing to indicate anything other than what we said before, and that that convoy was, again, leadership that was involved in this war on terrorism."

All this is enough to have made Paktia, which borders Pakistan, a focus of the new government's concern. Tribal rivalries have simmered for decades in Paktia, said Abdulhalesh Fazar, a Pashtun minister in the government. The secret to peace, he said this week, is carefully calibrating the balance of power so that no one tribe is dominant.

"If one tries to bully the others, the others will take up arms," he said. "It needs very precise and careful policies and compromise."

The balance is off enough now to have Kabul worried, Mr. Fazar said. That morning, he had met with 45 tribal leaders to try to make peace. The Taliban had been a unifying factor for groups with very different motives: fundamentalist ideologues, people on the payroll of Al Qaeda, those who believed the Taliban essentially represented Pashtuns. Now that umbrella is gone, he said, and these people were throwing sharp elbows.

To be Taliban in Paktia meant something different than to be Taliban in Kabul, the capital, or Herat, in the Persian-speaking west. In Afghanistan's cities, the Taliban movement and its rules were ruthlessly imposed on a resistant population. But provincial villages and towns were more receptive, because it was village life and tribal law that Taliban rule was meant to propagate.

Such nuances pose something of a challenge for Mr. Karzai, a Pashtun from Kandahar. As the Pashtuns of Paktia see it, Mr. Karzai is one of them, which is why they came to him this week to ask him to stop American bombing in Paktia. For Mr. Karzai, born of and respectful of tribal structures, the lines between the old and new Afghanistan, between Taliban connections and tribal relations, are inevitably blurred.

The convoy that came under American attack may have contained some former Taliban members, but it was clearly welcome in Kabul. When it was rerouted along the way by what some here called a rival tribal faction onto a dangerous back road, members of the convoy tried to reach Mr. Karzai for assurances they would not be bombed, Mr. Munib said. They also used their satellite telephones to call American officials, he said, although he did not know which officials.

While Mr. Karzai is Pashtun, the military structure is mostly Tajik, and some soldiers in Kabul see people like the Pashtun elders as the enemy. The elders say that as they have come into Kabul, soldiers have harassed and even detained them for wearing turbans, accusing them of being Taliban arriving to cause trouble.

Of greater concern for the central government, as well as the American military and thus the people of Paktia, is the degree to which the province was, and remains, a haven for Al Qaeda.

Until very recently, terrorists — specifically Al Qaeda — had bases in Paktia, to which they had been invited by the province's most powerful Taliban official, Jalaluddin Haqani.

The elders insisted that all the camps were closed when the Northern Alliance took Kabul, but reports of a surviving Al Qaeda presence in the province continue to surface.

Some of those reports come from Amanullah Zadran, a powerful tribal leader from Paktia and the government's new minister of borders. He says that four of the men from the convoy who were killed were Arabs. And he has said repeatedly that 350 Al Qaeda members remain in Paktia. At a meeting with tribal elders this week, he ordered them to surrender Al Qaeda members. He pulled a list from his pocket and began to read names of clerics and ordinary men who he said were harboring Al Qaeda members.

"Please, if you're hiding Arabs, get rid of them, or your house will be bombed," he thundered.

"No, no, no," the elders protested. "The Arabs are gone."

"I know they are there," Mr. Zadran said. "I have been informed you are hiding them here and there."

"We will search every village," an elder promised, "and come tell you if we have Arabs."

Mr. Zadran may be sincere, but some question his motives, saying that his brother, Badshadkhan Zadran, is trying to consolidate power in Paktia and that it was he who called in the airstrike on the convoy.

All of this intrigue — the arguments in Paktia over who was entitled to make the trip to Kabul to see Mr. Karzai reportedly went on for days — may have some people longing for the more orderly days of the Taliban. Which may be why today Mr. Munib was singing the new government's praises in one breath, and in the next, saying that the Taliban had saved the country from disintegration. He and some of the men killed in the airstrike on the convoy had disagreed with the Taliban only in their support for terrorism, he said. "Mullah Omar would not listen to our wants," he said regretfully, of the Taliban leader, Mullah Muhammad Omar, as if wishing he could turn back the clock.