QARA BAGH, Afghanistan - Rival warlords here have begun a campaign of reprisals in the Afghan countryside, beating villagers, stealing cars, and looting houses under the pretext of helping the United States root out Taliban leaders, residents and some warlords report.
In a new twist on Afghan lawlessness, the competing commanders call themselves "local Americans" and say they are working at the behest of the U.S. military - although their attacks seem motivated as much by greed as by ethnic fault lines, and the Pentagon disavows any connection to them.
All the factions claim to have the mandate, secret or otherwise, of Afghanistan's interim government in Kabul. Usually, such groups operate knowing that no one is watching and that they can define justice largely as they please.
"Anyone who complains about us belongs to al-Qaida," declares Abdullah, a deputy commander of a ragtag gang of fighters in mismatched camouflage.
The mayhem in Ghazni province, a deeply conservative Pashtun heartland, is the darkest prospect of Afghanistan's many futures, the kind of outcome of the U.S. military campaign that took Afghan leader Hamid Karzai to Washington earlier this week.
Even in the patchwork of factions that makes up Afghanistan's politics, Ghazni province stands out. Over the course of just a 30-minute drive along its dusty terrain, one crosses the territory of at least six warlords. They control anywhere from hundreds of fighters to a few dozen men.
What makes Ghazni's anarchy so explosive is the territory's mix of history, ethnicity and religion - a microcosm of the feuds in Afghanistan that have inspired more than a decade of fighting, massacres and the requisite revenge.
The region, on the road from Kabul to Kandahar, pits a majority Pashtun population against a recently empowered Hazara minority. Shiite Muslims coexist uneasily with orthodox Sunnis. And the territory itself was a wellspring of support for the Taliban, inspiring long-standing vendettas that are now being sated.
"It's like a jungle. No one has agreed with anyone else over what they control," says Rahim, a doctor in the provincial city of Qara Bagh. "Every commander asks for guns, asks for weapons. No one takes responsibility but everyone demands something."
The Hazara commanders insist that they are only disarming villagers, a task they say was set out by Karzai's government and the U.S. military. They say they operate with urgency because Taliban leaders and Arab allies are hiding in remote hamlets.
They acknowledge resistance from villagers - many of whom keep everything from pistols to grenade launchers - but they blame it on Pashtun hostility to outsiders and Pashtun attachment to weapons for self-defense.
"The Pashtuns think their gun is like their wife. If you've given your gun to someone, it's like you've given your wife to someone," says Commander Qayum, 29, a former police officer who leads a Hazara militia of about 100.
Many villagers in the region around Qara Bagh are cowed into silence, but those who do speak paint a much darker picture of the disarmament.
In recent weeks, they say, at least two people were killed by armed men, 50 people were beaten, at least 10 houses were robbed, and dozens of cars were stolen.
A senior defense official in Washington, asked to respond to the reports that some commanders are using the U.S.-led hunt for fugitive Taliban and al-Qaida forces as a cover to commit petty crimes, acknowledged that U.S. forces have little control over what armed groups operating in the countryside say or do.
"We're being careful to make sure we don't get played by any particular faction or side," the official said. "But the lack of police forces in areas outside major built-up areas like Kabul and Kandahar makes large parts of Afghanistan a free-for-all. U.S. and coalition forces are in a number of places, but we're not everywhere."
Indeed, commanders are fond of saying that they are "dakhili Amrikiyan," or local Americans, and warn villagers or rivals that they can call in airstrikes if their orders are not heeded. They usually operate at night, residents say, entering villages in pickup trucks bristling with rocket-propelled grenades and sporting a mounted machine gun.
Mullah Gholam Nabih, a local religious leader, acknowledged that many people here supported the Taliban, mainly for the security that they provided. Other villagers insist that those who fought with the Taliban had no choice, because the villages couldn't afford the equivalent of $200 a month the Taliban charged in lieu of sending men.
They say that the Taliban leaders have long fled the region and gone to Pakistan or elsewhere in Afghanistan, and that the militias are using the pretext of finding them to justify harassment and robbery.
"Even if they've heard that somebody took a half-kilogram (a pound) of meat to the Taliban, they start beating him and crack his head," says Alim, a 35-year-old from Qalai Shadi Khan, who says his motorcycle was confiscated by Qayum's men.
For many, the lawlessness in Ghazni confirms a bleak truth of modern Afghan life: The surest way to survive is to wield power.
Hazaras, who were victims of massacres under the Taliban, make clear that they won't surrender their newfound authority; to do so would invite reprisals. Pashtuns oppressed by the Taliban insist their zealotry in rooting out the remnants of the ousted rulers is motivated only by a desire to end the Taliban's lingering influence.
"This is the way people are in Afghanistan," says Bang Khan, an elder from the village of Mushaki. "Whenever you have authority, you take revenge."
A new cycle of revenge was set in motion last week in one of the most violent incidents so far - and one of the few in which villagers collectively fought back.
Men led by Naqibullah, the most notorious of the Pashtun commanders, entered Mohammed Naim Khan, a village of spring-fed irrigation channels and orchards of apricots and apples.
Earlier, they had seized the equivalent of more than $3,300 and confiscated two Kalashnikovs and two pistols from the father-in-law of a Taliban leader, who was said to have fled the village weeks before. The troops angered villagers by shouting insults and lifting the burqas of women to see if men were hiding in disguise.
Naqibullah says that he and his men returned this week to confiscate more weapons and that they were fired on without provocation. One of his men was wounded, he says.
Villagers say Naqibullah's men were driven from the village, but returned after seizing three pistols, two Kalashnikovs and a grenade launcher from a nearby community. Troops re-entered the village firing the weapons, residents said, and the fight ensued when villagers banded together.
Naqibullah says he has stayed away from the village since then in hopes that tempers will cool.
"We are sitting here in control because our people are with us. We don't want arms, we want peace," he says from his base set up in a former school.
Angry villagers take a harsher line.
"If this man comes back to this village," says Ahmed Jan, a 33-year-old farmer, "next time we'll kill all his men and him, too."