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Precision munitions are worse than worthless if their targets are selected by dishonest men. Western diplomats and Afghan intelligence sources in Kabul say that until recently the special forces in eastern and southern Afghanistan have relied on untrustworthy informants who tricked the U.S. into sending in lethal air strikes on their tribal enemies. Both the Kabul-bound convoy and the Qila-Niazi wedding party, for example, were targeted by Pacha Khan, a former provincial governor, derided by one official as a "Pentagon-created warlord," who was using American munitions to take care of his own business, according to Afghan government sources and tribal elders in Gardez. Says tribal chieftain Saifullah Khan: "Pacha Khan would phone up the Americans, point out a village and say they are all al-Qaeda." Pacha Khan denies the charges. After the attack on the wedding party, Saifullah visited the local base of the special forces. "We told the soldiers that these are good people--don't bomb them." As proof of loyalty, Saifullah pledged hundreds of his men to help the special forces hunt down al-Qaeda and Taliban bands spotted in a mountain region known as Armat Zadran, near the Pakistan border. The message got across: Gardez townsfolk rebelled against Pacha Khan last month, ousting him as governor. American warplanes circled but did not intervene.
As the rate of U.S. bombing has declined, errors have dropped. With the remnants of al-Qaeda and Taliban on the run in eastern Afghanistan, the special forces have had a crash course in the complexities of local tribal feuds. U.S. soldiers are far more circumspect about calling in air strikes. "When we get information about Taliban or al-Qaeda, we check it three, maybe four times before we act," says Gardez governor Taj Mohammed Wardak. Americans are also training local militias to hunt al-Qaeda. In Gardez alone, the special forces have recruited more than 200 men, giving them better guns, warm clothes, food and $200 a month. (In all, Western diplomats in Kabul tell TIME, the Americans have more than 15,000 Afghan fighters on the payroll, mainly in the Jalalabad and Kandahar regions.)
U.S. special forces in Afghanistan are frustrated by the perception that they are killing civilians heedlessly; they insist many strikes have been called off because of concern over such deaths. And they refuse to talk to the press. Last week a TIME reporter spotted two of them at the gates of a Gardez hospital; others were out back, tinkering with a rusty generator. But the two soldiers bolted. By the weekend, U.S. forces were fighting al-Qaeda suspects near Gardez in the fiercest battle in months. One American was reported dead. Civilian casualties were unknown.
--By Tim McGirk. With reporting by Mark Thompson/Washington and Michael Ware/Kandahar