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Sifting intelligence tips from vendettas in Afghanistan

Widespread tribal disputes still lead to bad information, frustrating both US Marines and Afghan villagers

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For weeks, US forces hunted Hazrat Jamal. They came to his house in Sawai and bothered villagers, but he was about a half-hour away in Khost City selling cars. The Americans suspected he was tied to a recent bombing, one of a growing number in this unstable province.

But Mr. Jamal's neighbor, Shamsulrachman, suspects that the Marines were duped by bad intelligence. A hotly contested land dispute has pitted the villagers of Sawai against some local officials - some of whom work closely with US forces - and Jamal is fighting the case in court. With him out of the picture, Shamsulrachman says, the case would fizzle.

Deciding between legitimate tips and erroneous leads that result from local score-settling has been an ongoing problem for US operations in Afghanistan. In July 2002, bad intelligence led to the US bombing of an Afghan wedding party that killed some 35 civilians.

More than three years into the mission, US officials in Afghanistan admit they still cannot always separate truth from vendetta. Given the long history of tribal feuds in southern Afghanistan, Afghans insist that American forces must ask more questions before raiding villages, as well as keep a closer eye on their local allies.

Here in Khost, mullahs and villagers say their patience is evaporating with US raids and arrests triggered by bad tips. If the US incursions continue, they say, they will have no choice but to resist.

Security is a top concern here, where armed men crouch along mountain roads in the blowing dust, carrying Kalashnikovs to ward off neighboring troublemakers. For villagers, some of the worst troublemakers are members of the Khost Provincial Force (KPF), many of whom were former Communist sympathizers during the Soviet occupation, while many village elders and mullahs were on the other side of the civil war. The KPF works with the 1,500 US troops in the province, providing intelligence, and looking into leads. Villagers say that the KPF is abusing its authority and uses its ties with US forces to settle old wartime grudges.

"I was a mujahid fighter. A [Communist fighter] killed my son, I killed his son. Now [the KPF] are giving wrong information to the coalition forces. They are taking revenge for what we did during the holy war," says Mullah Hanif Shah, the head of the mullah council of Khost Province.

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