US orders strikes on anti-Karzai warlords

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The Pentagon's campaign in Afghanistan has entered a new phase with bombing raids now being aimed at non-Taliban and al-Qa'ida forces opposed to the interim government.

Until last weekend, the wide-ranging US military operation had focused on forces of the former regime and the assets and fighting force of Osama bin Laden's terrorist network. But it was reported yesterday that the Pentagon had ordered two bombing raids against Afghan militias opposed to the new administration led by Hamid Karzai.

A statement issued by the US Central Command said American aircraft had dropped precision-guided bombs when "enemy troops" attacked forces loyal to Mr Karzai and his eight-week-old administration on Saturday afternoon. A second strike was ordered on Sunday. Both took place near to the south-eastern city of Khost.

When fighting started recently between various factions in northern and eastern Afghanistan, Mr Karzai said he would appeal to the US for support in halting that fighting.

The fragility of both the peace in Afghanistan and the country's interim government was underlined last week when the aviation and tourism minister, Abdul Rahman, was murdered by opposition elements within the government.

Mr Karzai said afterwards: "If the security situation in Afghanistan does not improve further, we will make sure the international security forces are asked, together with the Afghan forces, to take a stronger role.

"I will ask for every measure to bring security to the Afghan people. I will use international forces, Afghan forces, to make life good for these people.

"There is no way we will let the country go the way of the past. The gun-runners – those guys who think they can get away with murder – those days are over."

The New York Times said details of the American air strikes in support of Mr Karzai remained scant. A US Centcom statement said the bombing strikes had been requested by "pro-government forces" after "enemy troops" fired on them as they attempted to pass a roadblock. It gave no more information about the identity of either party involved.

The newspaper reported a claim by local Afghan commanders that the incident stemmed from a clash between two tribal militias – one from the Kochi clan, other from the Gorboz clan – about 20 miles from Khost. Another report said the bombing strikes were ordered after pro-Karzai forces tried to stop the two tribes clashing.

The Khost region is one of several in the country where rival warlords are operating. Padsha Khan Zadran and Zakim Khan Zadran, who are from the same tribe but otherwise unrelated, have carved out separate strongholds and recruited fighters who were loyal to the Taliban.

The US is aware of the dangers of being drawn into local conflicts and of being used to settle old scores. There has been at least one incident in which an American air strike was launched against a tribal group on the basis of false information supplied by a rival clan.

Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said earlier this week that the US military campaign to date was "just the beginning". He said the hunt was still on for Mr bin Laden and the Taliban leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar, as were efforts to "try and make the situation more secure".