Conflicting reports are streaming out of Afghanistan that a large, organized force of Taliban fighters, possibly as large as 5,000 with 450 military vehicles, plans to engage US troops.
Is the Taliban army rising up again?
A heavily-armed group of Taliban fighters and senior leaders slipped out of Kandahar in December and has gone into cover among remote villages in the mountainous region of Ghazni northwest of Kandahar, according to a report in the Times of London.
Intelligence sources in Afghanistan told Reuters on Friday that "hundreds of Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda fighters are lying low near Afghanistan’s second city, trimming their beards, speaking Pashto and gaining local support."
On Thursday US forces exchanged fire with armed guerillas about 60 kilometers north of Kandahar. Dozens of the renegade soldiers were captured or killed and one US serviceman was wounded.
US military officials said the encounter was triggered when the rebels opened fire on US special forces during a "search and destroy mission" north of Kandahar, where it is believed pockets of Taliban resistance are hiding.
US General Richard Myers said at a Pentagon briefing that initially it was believed only al-Qaeda fighters were involved in the clash, but once the fighting was over it appeared the guerrillas were mostly Taliban soldiers. "But we’re still sorting that out," he said.
Myers did not say whether any Taliban leaders were among the fighters.
The London Times reporter in Kandahar said that American forces were locked in "extremely delicate and tense negotiations" with leaders of the renegade soldiers in Ghazni, who have demanded millions of dollars and a guarantee of amnesty before they lay down their arms.
A senior aid to Gul Agha Sherzai, Kandahar’s new governor, told the Times of London that the rebel troops disappeared the day that Kandahar fell.
"They took with them 450 tanks and vehicles, rocket-propelled grenades, machine guns and rifles," the aide said. "At present, the Americans do not want to use force, as they are spread among the local people. But there are real fears that if there is one incident of revolt which takes place against the government, there will be a snowball effect."
In another similar report, an unnamed intelligence source told Reuters that there were hundreds of al-Qaeda troops holed up in the area surrounding Kandahar. "They have learned to speak Pashto and have shaved off their beards," he said.
The fugitives are believed to be hiding out in the desert, relying on migratory gypsies for food and water.
"They come and get food from the gypsies, they have weapons, and the gypsies help them out of traditional hospitality and because both are Muslim," the intelligence source said.
According to Reuters’ source, the clash between US troops and rebel fighters took place in a region known for its support of the Taliban. The rebels were well-armed with several thousand firearms taken from Kandahar before the Taliban surrendered the city.
The growing number of US and international troops stationed in Afghanistan have been met with mixed emotions among the population. As long as the majority of the soldiers remain in Kandahar and Kabul, there will be little trouble.
But now it seems a growing number of US troops are being drawn into the provinces, where they face greater likelihood of engagement in local rivalries.
A long-term deployment of international forces would be bitterly resented, some Afghans say, particularly in the Pastun speaking south, where Taliban sympathies are still strong.