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Afghan border security hinges, in part, on a rogue

A rocket attack near Khost on Sunday highlights persistent Taliban and Al Qaeda threats to US forces.

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Up in the undulating hills near the abandoned Zhawar Kili military base, eight young Afghan fighters sit around an old teapot, joking loudly and giggling as they unravel sweets from plastic wrappers. They smile up affectionately at Cmdr. Malim Jan, who served for two years as a senior Taliban intelligence official.

Few Afghan warlords have a clean record, but Commander Jan appears to have one smudged by the Taliban's most repressive activities, including allegations of torture and killing of the Hazara minority in the Ghazni and Bamiyan areas. He now has a new responsibility: helping to seal the border on behalf on the US. Some tribal leaders here warn that's like assigning the fox to guard the henhouse.

Critics say they have warned US special forces commanders, on several occasions, about Commander Jan's political loyalties. Haji Sharif Ullah, a senior government official in Khost, claims that "Malim Jan was, and still is, an agent of Al Qaeda." He adds, "It seems very ironic that he is still in power as the US forces are hunting for Al Qaeda and the Taliban." Jan's appointment, however, was carried out with the approval of US special forces commanders in the area, said senior sources close to the American base here.

Jan, who spoke with the Monitor from his hill fortress several weeks ago, has denied that he had agreed with the policies of the Taliban but admitted that he had worked closely with them in the past.

"I had friends in the Taliban and those friends protected me and gave me a job," he said. Indeed, Jan went on to praise and express immense affection for Jalaluddin Haqqani, a senior Taliban official who is known as a top Al Qaeda operative in the region.

In the "new Afghanistan" of President Hamid Karzai and American firepower, Malim Jan should, in theory, be a has-been – and possibly also a prisoner. According to Afghan officials both in Khost and Kabul, Jan was a Taliban commander in the Ghazni region – home to several of Osama bin Laden's relatives and a strong contingent of Al Qaeda fighters – during the last two years of Taliban rule from 1998 to November of 2001. While in Ghazni, Jan ordered the first shot fired from a tank at the ancient Buddha statues, according to Afghan fighters who were with him in that region.

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