ASADABAD, Afghanistan - It doesn't take much money to set up a militia force in Afghanistan. A few dollars a day buys the loyalty of impoverished villagers, and weapons are cheap and available.
It's so easy that one Afghan province, Kunar, near the eastern border with Pakistan, has 10 illegally armed groups, U.S. military officials say. Though each has its own agenda, they are believed to share a common aim: to disrupt or even stop landmark legislative elections next month.
''I got them all: Taliban, al-Qaida, Hig, foreign fighters, smugglers and other criminals,'' said Lt. Col. Peter Munster, a U.S. Army commander in Kunar. ''They are like the Mafia.''
Hig refers to a militant network led by renegade former premier Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who is wanted by the United States.
Munster said the militias ''are against the elections. . . . They are coming in with money and throwing it around. This is a poor area. People can be bought.''
The Sept. 18 elections are Afghanistan's next key step toward democracy after a quarter century of war and subverting them would be a highly symbolic blow to the U.S.-backed nation-building process that is slowly marginalizing the Taliban and other extremist groups.
The amount being spent on recruiting new fighters and the number of foreign militants coming into the region has spiked in the lead-up to the vote, said Kirimat Tanhah, an Afghan Special Forces commander in Kunar.
''This area is full of foreigners: Pakistanis, Chechens, Arabs. Weapons caches have been hidden and the local villagers are being paid to fight,'' he said, before a joint operation with U.S. Marines into Korengal Valley, a militant stronghold in remote mountains in Kunar.
The U.S. military in Afghanistan suffered its deadliest blow in the valley on June 28, when militants killed three Navy SEAL commandos in an ambush and shot down a special forces helicopter with 16 troops on board who had gone to rescue them.
The attacks came amid a major upsurge in fighting nationwide that since March has left nearly 1,000 people dead.