ON THE ROAD TO GARDEZ, Afghanistan — Sun-bronzed Najmuddin, 23, hefted his trusty Kalashnikov into the crook of his arm and smiled grimly beneath his pancake woolen hat. "We are going to Gardez," he said. "I think it will be the last fighting."
He and other Tajik members of the battle-tested Northern Alliance fighting force, the Panjshir Division, mounted pickup trucks and Soviet-built tanks Friday and headed south toward the Pushtun belt of eastern Afghanistan to join the American-led campaign against the Al Qaeda terrorist network.
Their commander, Gen. Gul Hydar, said they were sent by the Defense Ministry in Kabul, the Afghan capital, presumably to help cut off escape routes for a collection of Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters besieged by the Americans in the mountains around Shahi Kot, about 25 miles south of Gardez.
But bringing in troops from the north, rather than using local recruits, is sure to touch a nerve in this region of prickly tempers.
Hydar, a northerner from the Panjshir Valley who has fought the Taliban alongside assassinated Northern Alliance military commander Ahmed Shah Masoud, said he has been appointed overall commander of Afghanistan's eastern zone, which includes the provinces of Paktia and Lowgar.
His expedition south was the first time in memory that Tajiks have left northern Afghanistan to fight on Pushtun territory.
Their presence raised questions: Will the introduction of northern troops and a northern commander signal a new era of national unity? Or will it exacerbate existing ethnic and geographic tensions between Pushtun and Tajik?
Cloudy, windy and wet weather was whipping through the soaring peaks and deep valleys of Paktia province, where U.S. troops have been fighting entrenched Taliban and Al Qaeda supporters for a week. The movement of troops from Kabul will provide valuable reinforcements against an opponent that has put up much greater resistance than expected.
People in Gardez say the forces fighting the Americans are being led by a prominent local commander, Mullah Saifur Rahman Mansour, who remains popular with at least some of the people around Gardez and his hometown of Zormat.
Tribal leaders in Paktia have sometimes seemed ambivalent about how much to help the Americans in their quest to hunt down remnants of the Taliban and Al Qaeda forces. However, the northerners are committed to wiping out these fighters, their longtime enemies.
"I am happy that they will be removed because they have brought only disaster to this country," said Lt. Col. Mir Padshah, 37, who was operating one of the old Soviet tanks. His hair already graying, he said that he has been at war for most of the last 22 years.
The slow-moving column of about 1,000 troops, including tanks and truck-borne rockets, headed out of Kabul at 6 a.m. Friday, and all of its elements were expected to be in Gardez by early today.
Their arrival will double the size of the Afghan contingent available to fight alongside more than 1,000 American and other coalition troops, who are battling enemies holed up in caves and bunkers.
U.S. forces are at the forefront of the fighting but have been relying on Afghan allies to seal off escape routes and stop supporters of the Taliban from infiltrating the area to help their comrades.
A young man in Gardez, who asked that his name not be used, said the arrival of troops from Panjshir would be unsettling for the town, which is predominantly Pushtun.
"People think this is a step toward settling old scores," he said. "People are thinking that the Panjshiris are coming to take revenge on the Pushtuns."
Hydar, interviewed on the roadside where he sat on his haunches with top aides, dismissed the notion that the arrival of his troops should cause resentment or fear.
"It is not only Panjshir people that I have with me. We have some from Lowgar and other provinces," he said. "This army is sent by the national Defense Ministry. So it is not a question of Panjshiris or Pushtuns any longer. It is now a matter of a national army."
Hydar said regional military commanders met Friday with the defense minister and pledged that every region would contribute troops for the national defense.
"They agreed that when the defense minister calls, all provinces would provide as many soldiers as needed to get rid of the Al Qaeda, who have been killing our people," Hydar said. Thus his initial force could easily be increased, depending on the circumstances.
"Thank God that the Al Qaeda finally will be eradicated and removed," Hydar said, just before ordering his column to move forward. "It has been proven that they occupied our country by force."
If there are any Afghan Taliban troops fighting in Paktia, they should be treated the same as Al Qaeda fighters, he said. "Whoever joins them is a terrorist too."