For more than a week, U.S. officials secretly have been touring opposition-held areas of Afghanistan including the front line north of the capital, Kabul, and might have been scouting locations for a military base.
The anti-Taliban Northern Alliance refuses to say how many U.S. soldiers and civilians are in the territory it controls, or what they are doing beyond assisting airstrikes against Taliban positions.
But privately, the alliance acknowledges it has been assisting U.S. officials in civilian dress as they check on an airstrip under construction about 40 miles northeast of Kabul and on the front lines to the south of it.
Afghan guards at a huge, largely empty textile factory right beside the new airstrip said in interviews Friday that two Western-looking men visited the complex on Oct. 4. It was the same day that four men in U.S.-made sportwear were seen observing Northern Alliance military maneuvers on a hillside just down the road.
The textile factory would make an ideal base if U.S. ground troops were sent here. It sits on an estimated 120 acres of land with numerous large, empty warehouses. The complex is surrounded by a high stone wall, topped by barbed wire, and has guard houses at each corner.
The factory's guards weren't told who the men were, or the reason for their visit, but said one spoke English. It was the first time foreigners had visited the plant since it was shut down 20 years ago, said guard Faiz Mohammed, 58, who has worked there 47 years.
"They looked around for one or two hours," Mohammed said. "They looked at the whole place. They also filmed it."
The guards' description of the camera fit that of a pocket-sized digital video camera used by one of the observers at the military maneuvers. The men were dressed similarly, with sunglasses and their heads covered in Afghan scarves, the factory guards said.
U.S. bombing of Taliban positions north of Kabul has increased in recent days. After initially criticizing the U.S. bombing as too limited, Northern Alliance commanders now praise both the scope and the accuracy of the U.S. attacks.
The United States is providing the Northern Alliance with military advisers on the ground and bombing from above in the hope that Afghan troops can remove the Taliban regime without a large commitment of U.S. ground forces. Afghanistan has a long history of defeating foreign invaders.
U.S. officials appear to be laying the groundwork now for troop deployments by assessing how their logistical needs could be met in a country where electricity, clean water and other basics are in short supply.
If the alliance launches an offensive and drives Taliban forces back from positions near the former Soviet air base at Bagram, it could be used by large military transports. But the alliance appears to be close to finishing the half-mile airstrip at Shirkat as insurance if Bagram can't be made safe.