'Campaign guys' are Afghans on the hunt for al-Qaida members

BYLINE: By Drew Brown


LENGTH: 657 words

GARDEZ, Afghanistan — They call themselves "campaign guys." Outfitted with American-issue camouflage uniforms and winter parkas, they can be spotted manning checkpoints all across Gardez, a town of 40,000 people in eastern Afghanistan.

These Afghan fighters claim allegiance to neither of the two local warlords who are struggling for power. They take their orders from the interim Afghan government in Kabul and no one else.

Their mission is simple.

"The basic target of this campaign is to break al Qaida into pieces and to run them completely from the Afghan land," said Zaidullah Qayoom, who commands about 300 of the troops from headquarters in a former Taliban radio station on the outskirts of Gardez. "We've come here only because we want to make Afghanistan independent and free. We want to finish the battle with these terrorists."

Since U.S. bombers began pounding the region in mid-December in an effort to eliminate suspected al Qaida sites, Qayoom and more than 500 other "campaign guys" have been operating across Gardez with American special forces to track down the remnants of the terrorist network that Osama bin Laden leads.

Though they are tight-lipped about the specifics of the job, several of the gunmen acknowledged that they had been supplied with American weapons and training. They admit that their efforts have had mixed success so far.

"All of the reports we were getting indicated that there could be al Qaida in the area," Qayoom said. "But at least in my sector, from Kabul to this place, we haven't encountered any."

In Gardez — which is caught in a power struggle between the two warlords, each claiming the post of governor — the anti-terrorist militiamen have won praise from locals and rival gunmen as a fair, nonpartisan force that is only out to do its job.

"The people in Gardez respect them because of their behavior," said Dost Mohammed, a gunman loyal to Haji Saifullah, one of the two men claiming to be governor. "They are very good people. No one has complaints about them. They search the cars at the checkpoints, but they don't molest the drivers or the passengers. Everyone respects them."

Similar opinions are voiced at a frozen outpost across a snowy valley on the other side of the front line.

"We cooperate fully with the campaign guys," said Haji Daulat, a commander loyal to Bacha Khan, who was forced from Gardez last week after fighting broke out when he arrived to assume the post of governor. "Whatever help they need and whatever support they want, we give them all the way from here to the border with Pakistan. We give them full cooperation in everything."

Daulat, who sported a bandoleer of 9 mm ammunition across his chest, said Khan's group had helped the Americans capture "several al-Qaida guys" and given them information to help conduct airstrikes against suspected terrorist hideouts. The assertion could not be independently confirmed.

The anti-terrorist militiamen guard checkpoints along a stretch of highway between the front lines. Their presence is as much to keep the two sides apart as it is to keep a contingent of American special forces who are bivouacked at a mud fortress along the road from getting caught in the crossfire.

The Americans have threatened airstrikes to keep the two sides in check while talks go on in Kabul over the disputed governor's post. They also have threatened to attack if American soldiers are injured because of the internal fighting.

Qayoom said he and other "campaign guys" have done their best to stay out of the conflict.

"We only want to fight the enemies of Afghanistan," he said. "And our enemies are al Qaida. We still have these terrorists in Afghanistan, but we will find them and force them out. Once we do, and we're no longer needed here, then we will go home."