GARDEZ, Afghanistan – Bitter feuding among warlords turned eastern Afghanistan into a war zone this weekend, leaving as many as 25 people dead and furious residents accusing the interim regime of being weak, and the United States of being uncaring.
Some say they are even praying for a return of the Taliban, whose heavy-handed rule sent most of the country's warlords into exile.
On Sunday, residents in Gardez began to emerge from shuttered dwellings to bury their dead killed in the previous day's rocket assault.
As many as 25 people died when soldiers loyal to warlord Bacha Khan Zardran fired a torrent of rockets into the city on Saturday, said Gardez governor Taj Mohammed Wardak. Another 70 people were injured.
One man died because the hospital in Gardez couldn't find his blood type. Another two people died while being transferred to the capital Kabul, 120 miles away.
"A small child died because a piece of shrapnel ripped open her abdomen," said Dr. Naqibullah Irfan.
From their heavily guarded compound on the southern edge of the city, U.S. Special Forces brought blood and medicine to the hospital to help treat the wounded, Irfan said.
But people say it's not enough.
They want the special forces to use their military might to rein in the warlords. They say the U.S. response is quick and forceful when they are threatened, but less so when residents come under fire.
"When one mortar is fired near the compound where the U.S. soldiers are there are 20 planes in the sky right away, but when 800 rockets fall on the people of Gardez nothing," said Moukan, a shopkeeper who uses only one name.
The U.S. military spokesman said Sunday that the U.S. forces deployed in Afghanistan are quietly doing what they can to halt factional fighting in the east of the country, but negotiating an end to local feuds is not their primary objective.
"Our mission here is to capture or kill Al Qaeda and senior Taliban," said Maj. Bryan Hilferty, the U.S. military spokesman. "Our secondary mission is to help to secure the country."
Hilferty said recent clashes between rival warlords in the east posed a threat to the country's fragile interim government, but halting fighting between warlords was largely the responsibility of the new authorities.
"Of course we are working with the Afghan interim administration to help them with security, to help them set up the Afghan army. But particular factional fighting? I don't think it's for us to get into," said Hilferty.
But the relentless feuding is hurting the U.S. war on terror, driving the Pashtun majority in eastern Afghanistan away from the interim regime and longing for a return to the Taliban, said the governor, Wardak,
He warned that if it continues, U.S. forces could come under attack by the people of the area.
"People's patience with everyone is running out, with the government, with the Americans. They are unhappy with all of us," said Wardak.
"If this keeps happening there will be something against the Americans."
Noor Ahmed, whose brother was killed in Saturday's rocket assault on Gardez, was enraged.
"The Americans talk about the Taliban and Al Qaeda. What is Al Qaeda to me? This is my home, my children, my land and it is all in danger because of these fighters who are with the Americans," he shouted.
Zardran, whose men launched the assault, has been working with special forces since December to flush out Taliban and Al Qaeda hiding in eastern Afghanistan.
"The Americans say they have brought peace to Afghanistan. There is no peace. This is the only peace we have," Ahmed said, tossing twisted and mangled pieces of a rocket to the ground.
The rocket had slammed into his home, killing his brother.
"Bacha Khan is hungry for power. He's working with the Americans and he is getting his power from them," said Mohammed Azad, owner of a restaurant peppered by shrapnel, its windows blown in when a rocket crashed into the roof.
"In the afternoon yesterday people were praying for the Taliban to come back," said Moukan, the shopkeeper.
In an interview in his heavily guarded office in Gardez, Wardak said he would give Zardran 10 days to negotiate a settlement. If not, the Gardez army — a ragtag group of men, only some of whom have uniforms and weapons — will try to arrest Zardran.
"I will arrest him, bring him to court. Under the law he should hang," Wardak said. "He is responsible for all the killings."
The attack on Gardez may have been revenge for January's battle that left 40 of Zardran's men dead.
Gardez isn't the only place where warlords are feuding.
Barely 60 miles away in Khost, once a part of Paktia province, ferocious feuding between rival warlords has kept the markets shut for most of the last week and resulted in several deaths. Sandbag bunkers are on every corner and most rooftops. Men swagger down the street brandishing rocket launchers and Kalashnikovs.
In neighboring Nangarhar province, warlords Zaman Khan and Hazrat Ali are making residents nervous as their loyalists threaten to launch an all-out assault on each other. Most men were U.S. allies during December's battle at Tora Bora.
The fighting illustrated the continued instability in Afghanistan even as the country's ragtag fighting forces paraded in several cities Sunday to commemorate the end of communist rule 10 years ago.
In parades nationwide, soldiers saluted and hastily formed military bands played brief arrangements.
In Kabul, a lone MiG-21 streaked above the parade, one day after Afghanistan's only other fighter jet crashed during a rehearsal, killing the pilot.