- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 26, 2003

From combined dispatches

BAGRAM, Afghanistan An American soldier was killed and five wounded in a fierce gunbattle with suspected Taliban forces in eastern Afghanistan yesterday before U.S. fighter jets arrived and pounded the area, U.S. officials said.

The gunbattle at Shkin, near the border with Pakistan, involved at least 20 suspected Taliban fighters, Col. Roger King said at Bagram Air Base, the U.S. military headquarters north of the capital, Kabul.

At least three enemy fighters were killed in the firefight, while the remainder escaped across the nearby border into Pakistan.

About 11,500 U.S.-led coalition troops are in Afghanistan pursuing what is left of the former Taliban regime and the al Qaeda network of Osama bin Laden blamed for the September 11 attacks on the United States in 2001.

The death of the soldier came just ahead of a planned trip to Afghanistan by Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, who is to visit Bagram air base and Afghan leaders in the capital Sunday.

Diplomats say Mr. Rumsfeld's visit will be aimed at assuring U.S.-backed President Hamid Karzai that Washington remains committed to Afghanistan in spite of engagements elsewhere like Iraq.

One year after Mr. Karzai took office, the country still lacks a functioning national government and army. Outside of the capital, power and control are fractured down ethnic and tribal lines, led by powerfully armed regional warlords.

Mr. Karzai has appointed a 33-person commission to work up a new constitution to address such questions as disarmament and governance. The constitution is due to be laid out for public consultation by the end of May, with a final version to be presented by the end of October.

Some insist on the need for a strong, centralized government to hold the country together, fearing that allowing local elections at this juncture would fortify the periphery at the expense of the center, further deepening regional divisions.

Others recommend working with local warlords who control vast areas of the country outside Kabul.

Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, California Republican, who just returned from Afghanistan, said the country's top northern warlords are willing to put down their weapons in exchange for constitutionally guaranteed local and provincial elections.

Mr. Rohrabacher and his wife, Rhonda, also met with Mr. Karzai and former Afghan King Mohammed Zahir Shah in Kabul.

They drove from Kabul to the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif with an AK-47-armed guard provided by Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum, an ethnic Uzbek and prominent northern Afghan leader.

He also met Gen. Mohammed Ustad Atta, a leading Tajik commander. While in Kabul, he met a third leader, Usted Mohaqeq, of the ethnic Hazara group, which is also prominent in the north.

"The ethnic leaders are totally willing to disband their armies and disarm if they are guaranteed the right to elect their provincial leaders in all parts of Afghanistan," Mr. Rohrabacher said in a telephone interview.

"At this point, they are willing to begin the process of disarmament if a provision is written into the new constitution."

Sharon Behn contributed to this report from Washington.

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