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U.S. Forces Stay on Alert

June 11, 2002

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BAGRAM, Afghanistan (AP) _ The report came in: rocket fire outside Kabul. U.S. troops were jolted out of their cots before dawn Tuesday and assembled on the tarmac at Bagram air base, ready to fly to the scene.

They waited in the darkness _ and waited. Finally, the Quick Reaction Force was sent back to bed. False alarm.

U.S. officials have been warning for weeks that al-Qaida or Taliban fighters might try guerrilla-style attacks _ including suicide bombings _ to disrupt this week’s grand council, or loya jirga, which aims to create a new transitional government for Afghanistan.

As the loya jirga opened Tuesday, all appeared quiet.

U.S.-led forces based at Bagram, north of Kabul, are wary of any possible attacks. But they say they have no specific threats, and no visible increase in al-Qaida and Taliban activity.

``At various times you have indications that something might happen. You check it out and the indications don’t pan out,″ U.S. spokesman Col. Roger King said Tuesday. ``Nothing confirmed.″

In Tuesday’s false alarm, radar picked up what was thought to be two rockets launched between Bagram and Kabul, possibly BM21s, Soviet-built rockets normally fired from a vehicle launcher, Maj. Greg Tallman said.

The Quick Reaction Force was told to get ready. But Apache helicopters flew over the site, saw no impact or launch area, and determined no rockets had been fired, Tallman said. It was not known what caused the radar reading, he said.

U.S. soldiers at Bagram have been told to stay out of Kabul this week _ not because of any threat to them, but because the military doesn’t want to be seen as intruding in an internal Afghan affair.

``We don’t want people to think we’re in there looking over their shoulders,″ Tallman said.

Afghan soldiers and international peacekeepers in Kabul have the main job of protecting the loya jirga. The U.S.-led forces play a backup role through the mission they’ve been on for months _ trying to tamp down any al-Qaida or Taliban activity.

Lately, they seem to have found little. Around 1,000 U.S. troops _ mostly special forces _ and some 400 British marines have been searching near the Pakistani border for weeks. There’s been no sign of al-Qaida or Taliban fighters recently, though the troops did turn up four large weapons caches in late May.

The arms finds don’t necessarily mean al-Qaida or Taliban fighters have stepped up activity in the area. The weapons ``could have been placed there a while ago, and the forces aren’t there to protect them anymore. So we’ve found them and now can take care of them,″ King said.

A greater concern may be after the loya jirga, if Afghan power brokers _ each with their own armed fighters _ feel squeezed out by whatever government the council creates and turn to violence.

``We’re conscious that some may not be happy with the results of the loya jirga,″ Tallman said. Any violence, however, will more likely be between Afghans rather than directed against U.S. forces, he said.

U.S. commanders have tried to stay out of the warlords’ disputes unless they pose a direct threat to American troops. Instability among Afghan factions after the loya jirga, however, could play into the hands of the al-Qaida terror network and the Taliban, the country’s former rulers.

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