BAGRAM, Afghanistan – The U.S. military bolstered its firepower in eastern Afghanistan even as a dispute among its Afghan allies threatened Monday to complicate the campaign against the Taliban and Al Qaeda.
The military has brought a small number of A-10 "Thunderbolt" attack jets to this base to bolster America's capability to provide close air support for combat operations against Al Qaeda and the Taliban, a U.S. military spokesman said.
The A-10s, armed with 30 millimeter Gatling guns as well as AGM-65 Maverick and AIM-9 Sidewinder missiles, have already been used in operations in Afghanistan, including the just-concluded Operation Anaconda.
A dispute among America's Afghan allies continued to build, meanwhile, about 40 miles east of the Operation Anaconda battle area. Afghan officials said U.S. Special Forces had not handed over two suspects who allegedly sought refuge at their base after an ambush of the car of the regional security chief in which one bodyguard and two others were killed.
The incident threatens to drive a wedge between Afghan groups allied with the United States in the fight against Taliban and Al Qaeda and promote further instability in the Khost area -- a major land route from eastern Afghanistan into Pakistan.
The campaign against Taliban and Al Qaeda quickened, however, as the A-10s took up positions at Bagram, making them available more quickly in case Al Qaeda and Taliban targets are spotted. The aircraft had been positioned outside of Afghanistan.
"The A-10s that are coming in here give us an additional air platform," said Maj. Gen. Frank Hagenbeck. "They bring close air support and a little bit more coordinates than our helicopters can cover on any given mission."
At least four of the jets, known among pilots as "Warthogs," could be seen at Bagram air base, located north of Kabul.
A-10s can survive direct hits from armor-piercing and high-explosive projectiles. The twin-engine jet aircraft can be used against ground targets like tanks and other armored vehicles, as well as caves and fortified positions.
An A-10 jet can fly low and slow, allowing them to get in and out of target areas in the valleys and mountains of eastern Afghanistan. The Gatling gun mounted on each plane can fire 3,900 rounds a minute.
Much of the close air support in this month's Operation Anaconda was provided by Army Apache and Marine Cobra helicopters. But several of the helicopters suffered serious damage from ground fire, against which the A-10s are better protected.
U.S. and allied troops have been clearing the area of Paktia province where Operation Anaconda took place. Hilferty said several large caches of weapons and ammunition abandoned by Al Qaeda and Taliban forces during Operation Anaconda have been located and destroyed within the last day.
In Khost, a spokesman for the local intelligence service, Chinar Gul, said Afghan authorities were talking with the Americans about handing over the two suspects after the Sunday shooting incident.
The security chief of Khost province, Sur Gul, escaped uninjured in the attack, but his bodyguard was killed and two people were injured.
Khost, located in eastern Afghanistan near the Pakistani border, is a volatile city, bristling with arms and controlled by warlords. Most of the city is under the control of U.S.-backed warlord Bacha Khan Zardran, but within Zardran's group there are rival factions.
Gunmen attacked U.S. and Afghan troops in an attack last Tuesday in Khost, touching off a firefight that wounded one American soldier.
Khost intelligence chief Hazratuddin said the suspects were loyal to Sardar, who is Bacha Khan Zardran's nephew, and Sardar is "a strong commander of the Americans."
But Hazratuddin warned that the longer it takes to hand over the killers the more unstable the situation becomes.
"If they are not handed over then how can we stop the relatives of the dead man from taking revenge? They have to see the courts and the law work. The men have to be handed over to the police, but the police chief is very weak and the governor is very weak and Sardar is strong," Hazratuddin said.
There was no comment from U.S. officials in the area.
Meanwhile, a British military spokesman said just under 100 Royal Marines have already arrived at Bagram, part of a 1,700-member force that is expected to be here next week.