Michael Ware


TIME: Where Danger Lurks


On an icy, still night in Kabul, two weeks ago, Marine guards in full combat gear at the U.S. embassy were startled by the whoosh of a fireball exploding underneath wintry trees at the far end of the diplomatic compound. The resident bomb-disposal expert decided to wait until dawn before venturing out of the fortified embassy to investigate. That's what makes him an expert. The explosion was only a decoy. The real killer was a land mine that was invisible in the dark but was spotted in the daylight half buried. Says Corporal Matthew Roberson of the Marine antiterrorist unit at the embassy: "It looked like somebody did it so we'd come running out and step on the mine."

Afghanistan's "postwar" era is hardly a peaceful one. Last Thursday U.S. special forces engaged in a major fire fight, one of the largest in the conflict so far, near the village of Hazar Qadam, 60 miles north of Kandahar. The good news is that no American soldier died; one was slightly wounded in the foot. The bad news is that Hazar Qadam's was only the latest of several recent clashes between U.S. personnel and al-Qaeda and Taliban resistance. To date, only two Americans, including one from the CIA, have been killed by enemy fire (17 have died in accidents, including one who may have been a suicide). But the potential for mayhem remains huge and, by some Army assessments, growing as Americans confront what General Tommy Franks, head of U.S. Central Command, estimates to be about a dozen ever shifting pockets of resistance. Those dangers are exacerbated as American forces are drawn into local feuds and warlord ambitions. As the double-bang plot against the embassy illustrates, it is the multiplicity of perils and the long list of suspects that make Afghanistan one of the world's biggest booby traps.

Who carried out the embassy attack? The Arab members of Osama bin Laden's terrorist network have long since cleared out of Kabul, but many members of their Afghan cohort are at large, according to intelligence sources in the government of Prime Minister Hamid Karzai. The attack might also have been the work of Taliban fighters who still roam the city--in beardless disguise--acting on their own instead of with al-Qaeda. A third possibility is that the bomber was an Afghan who wanted payback for a bomb the U.S. mistakenly dropped on his home.

Of the 4,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, 3,000 occupy Kandahar airport and 500 are stationed at the air base in Bagram. Al-Qaeda elements "probed" the Kandahar airport to test its security apparatus and were sent fleeing. At Bagram, just keeping watch over 50 detainees, among them Pakistanis, Moroccans, Chechens and British Muslims, is hazardous duty for the 65th Military Police company. Inmates have been found with razors, money and pens sewn into their clothing even after repeated searches. If a suspected terrorist should manage to get beyond the 8-ft.-high razor wire, the procedure is simple. "We tell 'em three times to halt," says Specialist Tim Vernon, 22, of Sumner, Wash. "And if they don't, we open fire. No way we're going to chase them through the minefields."

Initiated missions always seem to bring the biggest perils. Last week's fight near Hazar Qadam was the result of a raid by Green Berets--acting, unusually in this war, without the aid of local militias--on two suspected al-Qaeda hideouts that turned out to be Taliban ammunition dumps. The invaders killed 15 Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters, took 27 prisoners and, with the help of an AC-130 gunship, destroyed the ammunition. According to one account of the battle, the two sides engaged in hand-to-hand combat amid the shooting. "The fact that so many died shows us they're still willing to put up quite a fight," says a Pentagon official. The "nests" the Green Berets attacked were just two of many the U.S. is watching across Afghanistan. "You're going to see more attacks like this," says the Pentagon official, "or at least you're going to hear about them after they've happened."

However, in Tarin Kowt, the capital of the province where the raid occurred, different and confusing claims are circulating. One allegation is that the U.S. made a mistake, attacking and killing provincial government soldiers who had gone to the area to accept a Taliban surrender and had been guarding the munitions stored in a local school and the district headquarters. A man claimed that two bodies were found with hands bound and shot in the head; furthermore, that 22 to 40 soldiers and a number of civilians were killed in the raid. The fear in Tarin Kowt is that the U.S. may have acted on information from local warlords who wanted to get hold of the Taliban munitions for themselves.

For the U.S., a huge challenge is not to slide into the miasma of Afghanistan's impossible politics. Diplomats say an ambush of U.S. special forces earlier this month in the province of Khost, in which Green Beret Sergeant Nathan Chapman was killed, may have been in reprisal for the U.S.'s backing an unpopular local warlord there, Pacha Khan Zadran. Zadran has enemies within his own tribe, including one who claims to be Khost's new governor and whose 500 fighters captured part of Khost last week. Twice now, Zadran's foes say, he has called in U.S. air strikes on his enemies, claiming they were al-Qaeda and Taliban fugitives. (Zadran denies the charge.)

Marine General Peter Pace, Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, insists that the U.S. "will continue to work with each of the tribal leaders to get to the point where the things that we are doing in Afghanistan alongside them are good for both the U.S. and Afghanistan." But he concedes that all of Afghanistan is a battlefield. And, he said, "the battlefield will continue to be fluid."

--With reporting by Mark Thompson/Washington and Michael Ware/Tarin Kowt