The question is: Which government? In Gardez, the man officially in charge of the province of Paktia—Raz Mohammad Delili—is a poised Afghan with a law degree and a formal appointment by the government of President Hamid Karzai. But a few kilometers outside the provincial capital, there's another center of power: Pacha Khan Zadran, arguably Afghanistan's most erratic warlord, whose 3,000-strong army patrols the jagged, mountainous routes from Gardez to the tribal areas of Pakistan. They're hunting for al-Qaeda members on the run and report on their luck to Charlie and his American colleagues on a daily basis.
Zadran wants the governorship of the province (and two others besides) for himself. So, in late April, he started lobbing rockets into Gardez in a campaign that killed 36 civilians. A rival clan in the city returned fire, sending artillery back into Zadran's valley over the heads of U.S. special forces. The Americans were literally caught in the middle.
No one knows the changing fortunes of post-Taliban Afghanistan better than Zadran. Before Sept. 11, he was living as a refugee in the tribal areas of Pakistan. Then came the war against the Taliban and al-Qaeda. The U.S.-led coalition needed local proxies to prosecute the war in the Pashtun-dominated southeast. Zadran, who fought against the Soviets and the Taliban, found himself flush with U.S. cash and with an army of foot soldiers. Zadran and his extended clan actually ran the provinces of Khost, Paktia and Paktika for a few weeks last spring until he was chased out of Gardez by local tribal elders. He wants those jobs back.
In August, Karzai said he wanted Zadran arrested for murder, but the warlord is unfazed. "Karzai wants to arrest me? He has mental problems," he says, holding court before nephews, cousins and Kalashnikov-wielding guards. "Look at Karzai," he bellows. "He has arrested himself. He has surrounded himself with 30 American guards who go everywhere with him." The congregation chuckles and Zadran keeps riffing. "The loya jirga was not a real loya jirga. It was a D.C. loya jirga. He is not the people's choice. Karzai must resign."
Without a strong army, Karzai has little chance of taming warlords like Zadran. And the U.S. still needs him to hunt for al-Qaeda (although officially a top American diplomat in Kabul says the U.S. military is no longer cooperating with Zadran). "Al-Qaeda is hunkered down waiting for an opening," says another diplomat in Kabul, "and a defection from a regional warlord could provide the cover that would allow these guys to climb out of their holes."
Outside Gardez, Haji Noor Mohammad, commander of Zadran's men, stands guard at one of Zadran's checkpoints. Mohammad says he has just given an intelligence briefing to the Americans. Pointing up to the peaks to the south, he warns, "There are more al-Qaeda here in this area. After Shah-i-Kot, they went to the tops of the mountains." Pacha Khan Zadran is vain, grasping and irksome—but his help may be worth the aggravation.