BAGRAM, Afghanistan – Hundreds of British troops have begun patrolling near the Pakistani border to stop Al Qaeda and Taliban fighters from slipping back into Afghanistan in a remote area where a warlord opponent of the United States may be active.
The new British deployment, codenamed Operation Buzzard, will last for several weeks and cover plains south and east of the city of Khost, near the Pakistani border, British military spokesman Lt. Col. Ben Curry said.
Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the powerful warlord accused of seeking to kill American soldiers and sabotage Afghanistan's interim government, is known to have connections to the area and could help Al Qaeda make a "resurgence" in Afghanistan, Curry said. But he would not say whether Operation Buzzard aimed specifically to hunt down Hekmatyar.
The CIA tried to kill Hekmatyar in early May, but missed him with a missile — one of the U.S. government's first overt actions against a non-Al Qaeda or Taliban group in Afghanistan.
In the 1980s, Hekmatyar fought against the Soviet occupation, and later served as a prime minister in the fractious government that took power in 1992, but fled to fled to Iran after the nascent Taliban took Kabul in 1996. He returned to Afghanistan earlier this year.
Two former high-ranking Taliban officials told The Associated Press last week that the Afghan-Pakistan border cannot be sealed to stop the movement of militants. They said the Taliban's supreme leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar, is overseeing a reorganization of the religious movement and has been in contact with Taliban warriors in their mountain hide-outs in Afghanistan.
The Taliban fighters may seek a "symbolic victory" against U.S.-led forces, including shooting down a helicopter or capturing a soldier and executing him, a senior British official said.
U.S. military spokesman Maj. Bryan Hilferty said Al Qaeda and Taliban members may also try to sabotage the loya jirga, the June 10-15 grand council meeting of Afghans from across the country to draw up a government.
The operation comes as Pakistan appears to be preparing to withdraw troops patrolling its side of the Afghan border because of tensions with India. And while the mission is primarily aimed at blocking re-entry into Afghanistan, coalition officials clearly would also seek to intercept remaining Al Qaeda or Taliban trying to flee into Pakistan.
Operation Buzzard is not specifically designed to protect the grand council meeting, Curry said, but "clearly anything that we can do to prevent any form of disruption that Al Qaeda or the Taliban may try to cause is a good thing."
The loya jirga aims to forge an 18-month government out of the country's often violently divided factions and tribes, a vital step toward stabilizing Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban in December.
U.S. defense officials have said attacks against the council process are possible, though they do not have intelligence of specific plots.
Hilferty said Al Qaeda could be planning "typical terrorist attacks," including homicide and car bombings, against coalition forces or the loya jirga.
Din Muhammad Jurat, national police chief of Afghanistan's interim government, said he knew of no specific threats to the loya jirga.
"With God's help, we will have tight security in Kabul for the loya jirga and no difficulties," Jurat said. He said the frontier between Afghanistan and Pakistan, however, remains a wild card.
"The international community, especially America, should pressure Pakistan to pay attention to its border and watch for Al Qaeda there," Jurat said.
British troops will patrol by foot, vehicle and helicopter to keep Al Qaeda and Taliban fighters out of a key crossing between Afghanistan and Pakistan and stabilize the remote area to allow for development and the flow of humanitarian aid.
"We are going in for a longer duration," Curry said. "The key point is being unpredictable. We'll be operating ... sometimes covertly, sometimes overtly, introducing doubt into the minds of Al Qaeda and the Taliban."
U.S. special forces have been conducting similar operations in Khost and nearby provinces for months, Hilferty said, but "this is the largest-scale operation of this type."
Some 300 British troops were deployed over the past three days in the area, but the number could rise to 700, a senior British official said on condition of anonymity.
The plains around Khost have numerous villages and the area is rife with feuding warlords whose support would be key for British soldiers.
Brig. Gen. Roger Lane, commander of the British forces, made an address on Afghan radio and the BBC's Farsi-language network Wednesday explaining the mission.
"We have no strategic self-interest in staying here in Afghanistan. We are here because Al Qaeda harbored terrorists who killed 3,000 people in New York on Sept. 11," Lane said. "We will search mountains and other areas to make sure that terrorists have no safe haven."