After the Taliban, rivals test new power

An uneasy peace reigns in Jalalabad as allies divide spoils of victory

War On Terrorism

November 19, 2001|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JALALABAD, Afghanistan -- When asked about their futures, these men who have known virtually no past but war smile and speak warmly of peace, brotherhood and their love for all Afghans. Then, at the first approach of an armed stranger, they lock and load their weapons, prepared to kill.

Such are the habits learned in a lifetime of fighting, and they are proving hard to break in the first days of an uneasy peace. Just ask a fighter named Zalmai.

Shortly after saying, "We are optimistic for peace," he races to a stone wall with a rocket-propelled grenade launcher aimed at two pickup trucks approaching his checkpoint. The trucks are bristling with men and weapons, and no one looks familiar.

"Stop!" Zalmai's commander shouts at the trucks, then tells his men: "If they don't have permits, take their weapons."

For a moment there is no sound but the click of ammunition clips, as 25 blank-faced soldiers on either side reach for Kalashnikov rifles and grenade launchers. The crisis soon passes when the arrivals are identified as allies, but before the hour is out there will be an even tenser standoff.

That is life these days in Jalalabad. Forces of the ruling Taliban departed five days ago, but the fractious nature of the regime left in their place is easily illustrated by a Sunday morning tour of the town's new fault lines of leadership. Officially, at this point, the three contenders for power are:

Haji Abdul Qadeer, the new provincial governor. Supported by aging local power broker and ex-guerrilla commander Mullah Yunis Khalis (who until recently had a working relationship with the Taliban), Qadeer emerged as top man in a Saturday council of elders.

Haji Mohammad Zaman, a fresh arrival from exile in Pakistan. Joined by caravans of armed supporters on Thursday and Saturday, he is said to have the backing of Pakistan, but so far that has only earned him the job of provincial military minister.

Hazrat Ali, self-proclaimed "liberator" of Jalalabad in a battle Wednesday in which few shots were fired. He has his own formidable army. His new job: provincial minister of police and security.

For the most part, the route through their still-evolving spheres of influence is one of exotic charms and rural beauty. In the heart of the town, narrow dirt lanes pass through a bustling bazaar, bright with tomatoes, cauliflower and red onions.

Open wooden stalls are piled high with white clouds of newly picked cotton. Heading into the countryside, dusty farm tracks wind through orange groves and down rows of eucalyptus. In the foreground, plains flocked with trotting sheep and the occasional camel. In the background, towering mountains to the south and north, beneath a brilliant blue sky.

There is a dangerous litter, too, of the sort one might expect after 22 years of war: 30 or more tanks -- some working, some not -- huge bomb craters, truck-mounted rocket launchers with all 40 chambers loaded, destroyed buildings, and, in a few places, out among the sheep and the children who tend them, unexploded American cluster bombs. Their small yellow tubes say "Bomb Frag" in gray lettering on the side, and some are still attached to the tiny parachutes that brought them to earth.

But the most volatile elements along the route are the gangs of well-armed men such as Zalmai, representing Qadeer, Zaman and Ali -- three rivals testing the limits of their new authority.

Zalmai's checkpoint outside of town is the first stop. American bombs and missiles struck here, leaving craters 25 feet across and 10 feet deep, and several flipped tanks, their turrets blown off.

About 60 military vehicles are scattered about, though most seem more the victim of the elements than of airstrikes. Ali has claimed the place as his own, under the aegis of being in charge of town security. It is quite an arsenal for a minister of police.

"We are here to keep anyone armed from entering this area," says Zalmai, explaining that he and the others work for Ali. Between them, there is plenty of experience.

"I have spent all my life fighting," says Zalmai, 28. "Even before I was old enough to shave I was fighting the Russians. I have fought so many battles that I can't even remember how many."

Minutes later, more pickup trucks arrive. Again they bristle with men and weapons. This time, none is a soldier of Ali.

"Stop!" the checkpoint commander shouts, and he commands the men in the trucks to hand over their weapons. They refuse, and their commander steps from the cab to argue. Four men behind a stone wall at the checkpoint rush into position, two on either side of the entrance. They aim Kalashnikovs and grenade launchers. The argument grows louder.

One of the guards motions down the road to a trio of earlier visitors and their driver.

"You go," he says, waving his hand. "It's a fight. You go. Now." The tour departs with the outcome still in doubt.

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