On Wednesday night, the bandits moved from door to door, brandishing rifles and flashing knives. In the Kandahar suburb of Manan Medical, 15 men smashed their way into one mud-brick house after another. A local businessman named Shir Mohammed waited as they robbed his neighbors, holding blades to their throats. By 3 a.m., the thieves were inside his house, tying up a guest and demanding cash. But Shir and his relatives fought back and, in a running gun battle that lasted until dawn, chased the robbers to their safe house, the local police headquarters.
In this city, where government salaries are not a reliable source of income, the rogue cops may have seen the raid as a tax collection. But the violence did not stop there, because this was a chance to settle a few scores. Kandahar is a polarized city; the new governor, Gul Agha Sherzai, has the title but not all the power. Rival warlords see him as an ally of Pakistan propped up with U.S. guns and money. Sherzai has had to use his rivals' troops to fill out his police and security units, but their loyalties lie with their commanders, not him.
And so the robbers--non-Kandahari Afghans recruited by Sherzai in Pakistan--were besieged at 7 a.m. by a gang of rival soldiers. Kalashnikovs barked back and forth, joined by salvos of rocket-propelled grenades. Lurking behind corners or popping out of windows, the fighters sprayed their rounds, oblivious to the market shoppers passing by. The skirmish was won by Sherzai's rivals. Eventually, two men were whisked away. The crowd dispersed, and the soldiers relaxed.
Sherzai can't afford to do the same. Last time he was governor, in 1994, lawlessness ruled the province. People were happy when the Taliban came to power and he fled to Pakistan. A burly warrior with a taste for gambling, Sherzai now needs to help the Americans hunt down fugitive Taliban and al-Qaeda forces but risks angering his citizens, many of whom still sympathize with those forces. On the streets, the foreign al-Qaeda fighters are seen by many as Muslim brothers needing protection. "If an Arab came to me for help, I would carry him to the border, no problem," says a fruit merchant. In the city's dusty back streets, thousands of graves are marked by small piles of stones. One cluster lies beneath a forest of green-and-white flags set atop 12-ft. wooden poles. This is the "Arab cemetery" for al-Qaeda's dead, where hundreds pay their respects each day.
So far, U.S. forces have succeeded in rounding up more than 270 al-Qaeda and Taliban prisoners; most are being held at the Marine base outside of town. New arrivals are questioned by FBI agents and military analysts. "We're getting good stuff," a military source says. "Oh, boy, are these guys talking. Most of them have simply had enough."