Hadji Badam Gul, a farmer in the border village of Sechan, prepares to hand over a live Russian tank shell to U.S. soldiers. After decades of war, Afghanistan is littered with ordnance. (Sun photo by John Makely)
AKIKH, Afghanistan -- The 14-year-old boy knelt on the rocky ground in these arid mountains near the Pakistan border, arms folded on his chest.
Spread out before him was a small arsenal: a rocket-propelled grenade launcher, a mortar, two assault rifles, a Soviet-era rocket, three sacks containing more than 50 pounds of explosives, a machine gun with more than 1,000 rounds of ammunition.
The boy's name was Manan. Standing over him, forcing him to remain on his knees, was U.S. Army 1st Lt. Ed Arntson, who had watched through his binoculars as Manan and several younger boys ran between a mud-brick house and the surrounding hills, hiding the weapons.
Now Arntson wanted Manan to explain what he intended to do with all that weaponry. The teenager denied knowing anything about it. "I've lived here for only one year," he said. "I didn't know the arms were there. If I knew, I would have told you. I swear before God."
It was a test of wills between two strong-willed young men. It also symbolized the frustration, fierce defiance and shadowy opposition the United States and its allies face in Afghanistan.
Two and a half years after the Taliban and al-Qaida forces were driven from power, insurgents who support a fundamentalist Islam profoundly hostile to the United States are engaged in a campaign of kidnappings, bombings and assassinations across eastern Afghanistan.
Even areas that were relatively quiet in the months after the United States toppled the Taliban, such as these mountains and steep valleys near the city of Khost, 90 miles southeast of Kabul, have erupted in violence.
This is what happened near Khost province last month: A paratrooper with Arntson's 1st Battalion of the 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment was shot in the hip by a sniper. Two insurgents who attacked a platoon with grenades were killed. An American security contractor standing along a road was shot in the arm by two men on a motorcycle. A company of paratroopers on patrol came under rocket and machine-gun fire; a day later, the same unit was ambushed in a mountain pass. A mine buried in a twisting mountain road exploded in front of a truck loaded with soldiers from Arntson's platoon. Over the span of three nights, an American base came under rocket attack four times. Marine helicopters helped Afghan soldiers kill nine guerrillas who attacked a border post. Passengers in a car opened fire on an American convoy, and the soldiers shot back, killing two of the attackers. Another American soldier was killed in a shootout.
Afghanistan was the first country that the United States tried to remake after the Sept. 11 attacks. But Afghanistan, and especially its border with Pakistan, remains a battleground, where the survival of the central government and the rule of law are far from assured. Much of the population remains beyond the government's reach, and supporters of al-Qaida and the Taliban - the former rulers of the country - attract significant support.
A critical test
For the United States, this remains a proving ground - for its efforts to create a stable civil society, defeat movements profoundly hostile to the West and, eventually, proclaim the venture to be a success. None of those goals has yet been met, as becomes evident on patrols with American troops and visits to Afghan cities and towns.
The mines, grenades and small-scale clashes have forced aid groups to all but abandon many districts and slowed reconstruction. They could also derail the national elections that have been postponed to September from June. By triggering aggressive searches and arrests, the clashes threaten to turn more of the population against the United States.
This is also the backdrop for the United States' long search for al-Qaida's founder, Osama bin Laden. Patrolling the dry river beds and goat paths that crisscross Afghanistan's border with Pakistan, Americans have for much of the past 2 1/2 years focused on his capture to the exclusion of almost everything else.
Not long ago, near the village called Dabgay, a few miles from the Pakistan border, a Humvee carrying a half-dozen paratroopers sank up to its fenders in mud. When the driver raced the motor, the wheels spun uselessly.
Afghan villagers drifted to the scene, the wide, muddy bed of the Kailu River. Dry most of the year, the river zigzags toward Pakistan's Dunikot Gorge, one of a string of suspected sanctuaries for insurgents in this region, about 100 miles southwest of Kabul.
Arntson and other members of his battalion sweated in the hot sun. Digging out proved futile. When a truck tried to pull the Humvee free, the tow-strap snapped. Finally, stronger straps were found, and the vehicle popped out of the muck like a cork from a bottle. But the sun was setting, and it was too late for a planned trip to the border. The Afghans watched, grinning, as the tired Americans resumed driving north.
If he was watching, bin Laden might have smiled too. The afternoon the soldiers spent mired in the Kailu's treacherous mud seemed to embody the United States' search for him. It was an exercise in frustration.
Officially, the U.S. military remains hopeful that bin Laden and the leader of the Taliban, Mullah Omar, will be captured.
"The sand in the hourglass of all the senior al-Qaida leadership is running out," Lt. Gen. David Barno, commander of the U.S.-led coalition forces in Afghanistan, told an interviewer early this year.
At a news conference last month in Kabul, Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, declared that the U.S.-led coalition here would eventually destroy al Qaida's leadership. But others in Afghanistan and Washington say that the United States has only recently committed the necessary resources and that the hunt could take years.
"I think General Myers and the military commanders have been smoking illegal substances for a long time," Vincent M. Cannistraro, former chief of operations for the CIA's Counterterrorism Center, said in a telephone interview from McLean, Va. "They have an almost unbroken record of being wrong for almost a year and a half."
In recent months, the United States has accelerated the chase. What appear to be drone aircraft fly at low altitudes in eerie silence across the star-choked night sky. Afghan commanders talk of working alongside American soldiers on large-scale search operations in remote valleys, involving hundreds of Afghan and American troops. U.S. bases in the region are wreathed in dust clouds kicked up by helicopters, C-130 cargo aircraft and convoys of Humvees.
Ali Ahmad Jalali, Afghanistan's minister of the interior, who commands Afghanistan's main civilian intelligence service, cautions that the search may be a wasted effort. Bin Laden, he theorizes, probably isn't in the region: Even with the protection of tribal leaders, Jalali said, bin Laden couldn't easily remain invisible for two years. "If he's there, why hasn't he been found?" he asked.
Likewise, Akhmad Wali Karzai, a brother of Afghanistan's President Hamid Karzai and an influential figure in the southern city of Kandahar, said he believes Mullah Omar has slipped away. For a long time, he was thought to be hiding in the rugged mountains of Afghanistan's central Uruzgan province. That seems increasingly unlikely. "The walls would talk if Mullah Omar was here," Karzai said.
Recent reports say bin Laden is hiding in the vast desert where the Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iranian borders meet, Cannistraro said. But even that is based on months-old intelligence.
"My judgment is that if [the Americans] hadn't diverted their attention to Iraq, they might have caught him," Cannistraro said. "He's had a lot of time to hide, to cover his tracks. Basically, I think we've screwed up."
The drone aircraft meanwhile continue to fly, and a joint Pentagon-CIA unit that helped track down Saddam Hussein in Iraq has been here for months.
"But those are tools you dedicate to a hunt when you have information on where that hunt should be centered," Cannistraro said. "People say he's here, he's there. But I don't think there's any confirmed, corroborated intelligence on his location. It's like throwing a fishing net out and not being sure there's anything in the water."
Though the death or capture of bin Laden would cause jubilation in the United States, it might have little practical effect. The terrorist network he founded shows signs of having cloned itself many times over. It may no longer need his guidance.
The hunt for bin Laden
Control of Afghanistan's eastern border, on the other hand, is critical, and will help determine how long American troops stay in the region.
When the Soviet Union occupied Afghanistan in the 1980s, mule teams carried weapons through these mountains to fighters paid and equipped by the CIA. When the Taliban rose in the mid-1990s, they found thousands of willing recruits in the madrassas, or Islamic religious schools, filled with the sons of these hill people. Bin Laden ran terrorist training camps here, and retreated here as the Taliban regime collapsed.
A successful insurgency here could remake the area as a nursery for Islamic fighters. "This border region is the focal point; it's the critical mass," said James McNaughton, an Afghan expert with the U.S. State Department working in the provincial capital of Gardez. "Afghanistan's future essentially will be won or lost here."
The outcome of that struggle is still in doubt. From the start, critics say, U.S. military commanders and civilian officials ignored local economic and political issues, focused instead almost solely on the hunt for al-Qaida and Taliban fugitives. The White House also limited the American commitment: Until recent weeks, 13,500 American troops were stationed in the country - about 10 percent of the number in Iraq. Reconstruction efforts were neglected until last year after a surge in guerrilla attacks.
Now U.S. authorities are handing out aid as fast as they can. Members of Arntson's Army battalion dole out soccer balls, blankets and wind-up radios during patrols, and promise village elders to build schools, wells and clinics.
"Everything was destroyed in this country for the last 25 years," said Akhmad Wali Karzai, in Kandahar. "You name it, we don't have it. We are starting from zero. Electricity, roads, clinics, clean water, schools. We need everything."
Karzai, 42, is one of six brothers of the Afghan president. As a young man, Wali Karzai lived for a year in Laurel and worked at the family's Helmand Restaurant on Charles Street in Mount Vernon. For nine years after that, he ran an Afghan restaurant in Chicago. After the Taliban retreated from Kandahar in December 2001, he moved into his family's large, two-story house near the center of the city. He has remained there ever since.
He holds no official government post. But as chairman of the tribal council in Kandahar, Wali Karzai receives petitions and settles disputes among people from across the region. Every morning, his glassed-in front porch is jammed with tribal and business leaders pleading for favors.
Karzai sees progress where others see disintegration but doesn't think Afghanistan can stand on its own yet. "The only thing that can make this country stabilized is your presence, nothing else," he told an American visitor. "If you gave us hundreds of billions of dollars without your presence? It would mean nothing. Tomorrow morning we would be sitting here, listening to rockets and gunfire."
Since 2001, the United States has spent $4.2 billion here - a colossal figure in a country with fewer than 2,800 miles of paved roads, no national telephone network and no functioning legal system. But money does not necessarily buy loyalty.
At a truck stop outside the city of Gardez, an entrepreneur named Hadji Atlas stopped to fill his big green backhoe and dump truck with diesel fuel. He supplies gravel for roads to a U.S. military base. "The Americans spend money like it was dirt," he cheerfully said.
The money has not changed his politics. For Atlas, U.S. soldiers and their free-spending ways are merely opportunities.
"I hope Osama bin Laden lives forever," he said. "Osama is a Muslim. He is killing unbelievers. And if Osama were not here? I would be making my money selling potatoes and onions in the street."
"Now, I am the owner of these trucks."
Region in turmoil
Paktika province, south of Kabul, is part of the troubled border region. With windswept desert valleys that rise to snow-dusted peaks in the east, the province is sparsely populated and poor. Its roads are pockmarked clay tracks that meander through the mountains or cut across dusty valleys.
Eighty percent of its population is Pashtun, the nation's single largest ethnic group. Extended families live in proud isolation in grand mud-brick forts, called kalats, that stand like medieval castles amid wheat fields, shadowed by the mountains.
Paktika is more dangerous today than it was in the months immediately after the fall of the Taliban. "One year ago, you could travel anywhere here, with no escort," said Sebastien Trives, head of the United Nations office in southeastern Afghanistan. "Now, we need 50 men. Half the districts here are high-risk. There are some places we can't go at all."
Until a few months ago, the governor of Paktika was Mohammed Ali Jalali. U.S. military officials say Jalali didn't try to stop the infiltration of guerrillas from Pakistan. By some accounts, he occasionally invited fighters to dinner when they passed through the capital, Sharan-e.
"The single greatest thing that happened here was that the former governor, Jalali, and the former police chief left," said Lt. Col. Michael Howard, commander of a large American base. "The former regime only controlled Sharan-e. What you had was a government-less province."
Loyal in name only
President Karzai fired Jalali in February and appointed in his place Haji Gulab Mangal, a former United Nations aid worker with a trim, gray-flecked beard.
The night that he moved into the governor's offices, rockets landed outside. He has received letters containing death threats. He never leaves the compound without his complement of 60 tribal bodyguards, none of whom is from Paktika. And he moves around his province only under military escort.
A few days ago, Mangal was scheduled to tour Paktika's southern districts with Lt. Col. Daniel Breckel, a civil affairs reservist based in Gardez. about 40 miles north, but a five-hour, spine-jarring trip by road. Breckel, who in civilian life administers drivers' tests for the Oregon department of motor vehicles, arrived at the governor's headquarters in a convoy that included a dozen soldiers and two armored Humvees equipped with .50-caliber machine guns.
Over tea and raisins in his large, gloomy office, Mangal said he has fired or transferred four of his 22 district commissioners, and planned to fire more. "State representatives here are state representatives only in name," he said. "They live side by side with the Taliban, so their loyalty is in question."
But Breckel had bad news. The night before, American military commanders in Kabul had canceled the tour of southern Paktika. Breckel's security force was too small and lightly armed, they said, to risk provoking an attack. Paktika was too dangerous for its governor to explore.
A convoy's mission
In the red and gold light of morning, Capt. Dominic Clementi of the 3rd Battalion, 321st Field Artillery Regiment set off in a convoy of Humvees from Gardez. The vehicles steered southwest, toward the village of Sechen.
The Gardez reconstruction team, one of about 10 in the country, combines civil affairs experts, regular soldiers and a Special Forces unit. Civil affairs officers plan roads, wells and other improvements; the soldiers provide security; the Special Forces arrest and interrogate suspected fighters.
Clementi was in charge of security. A couple of mines had been discovered along the road leading to the team's base, a fortress-like compound in the foothills east of the city. To the north, a U.N. team helping prepare for September elections had been attacked with rocket-propelled grenades.
At the same time, there were reports of men on motorcycles armed with Kalashnikov rifles - the classic profile of the guerrilla fighter here - roaring through the village of Sechan at night.
About an hour after leaving Gardez, Clementi's patrol reached Sechan. It sits amid irrigated fields scoured by dry washes and surrounded by dark peaks. The convoy churned up one dry wash that serves as a road.
First Sgt. Clint Robertson threw stacks of handbills out the window of his Humvee. The fliers carried pictures of resolute-looking American soldiers next to pictures of ragtag militants. In Pashto, one of Afghanistan's major languages, it taunted guerrillas, trying to goad them into frontal assaults, which American forces could easily crush. "Taliban and al-Qaida, stand and fight," the leaflets read. "Do not run and hide!"
After carpeting a small area with handbills, the patrol doubled back. Soldiers climbed out of their vehicles and crossed a field toward the village, their rifles ready.
Everyone saw them coming, of course. The soldiers found only women, children and elderly men inside the kalats. A half-dozen younger men loitered with studied indifference in a field about 100 yards from the village. In a field was a Soviet-era artillery shell that was potential raw material for a roadside mine.
It wasn't clear how the shell came to lie there, in plain sight. Clementi threw it over his shoulder and took it toward a vehicle.
Robertson knocked on the big steel doors of a kalat. An elderly man finally emerged. Were strangers passing through the village at night, the Americans asked. Had he seen anyone suspicious?
"You are far away," the man muttered sympathetically. "For our safety, we can't say anything."
One of the Americans found two canisters filled with rounds of anti-aircraft ammunition and Kalashnikov bullets, hidden under some brush. Clementi summoned Hadji Badam Gul, one of the men loafing in the field.
Children had collected the shells, Gul explained. He had hidden them in the brush pile to keep them safe.
Clementi asked if there were other arms.
Gul led him across a field. Years ago someone had planted a Soviet tank shell across the ditch to make a spillway. While the Americans quickly backed off, Gul hacked at the ground around the shell with a pick. He pulled it out and carried it closer to the road, where Americans could retrieve it.
Back at Gul's kalat, Roberston pasted wanted posters of bin Laden and Omar, the former leader of the Taliban, on the metal front gates.
"If you put those there, al-Qaida will come tonight and kill all of them," the American's Afghan interpreter warned.
"If the family tears them down, they tear them down," Robertson said.
The soldiers knocked on the gate of another kalat, which belonged to Hadji Gul Mohammed. Mohammed wasn't at home, a boy said.
Inside, farm tools lay scattered. Turkeys and chickens scratched in the powdery dirt. Three women sat on the porch, tugged scarves over their faces and started to wail. The soldiers ignored them, and began hunting for weapons.
Helping the sick
The soldier's Afghan interpreter tried to quiet the women, and one shyly asked him for help. Her children were sick. She led the interpreter and Pfc. Joseph Amato, a medic, into the women's quarters - usually a forbidden place.
In the dark, low-ceilinged room a 5-month-old boy with a high fever lay in a cradle, staring silently into space. A 2-year-old girl with a racking cough lay a few feet away, on her side.
Amato was prepared for burns and gunshot wounds, not sick children. But he scrounged up a Tylenol, laid the pill on a bin Laden poster and crushed it with a pocket tool. "The poster is the cleanest thing in the room," he said. Dissolving some of the powder in water, he poured it in a syringe and shot the solution into the children's mouths.
Robertson ducked through the door, squatted and asked the women swathed in vivid green, pink and red cloth if they had seen anyone suspicious.
"I have seen some Americans," one replied.
Another woman, bolder than the others, leaned forward. Yes, she said, bandits had been raiding the area villages at night. "They are chasing and killing the people and taking all their things."
Just then, some of the men appeared at the door. Khan Dala and Merza Khan were slender and bearded, in their 20s, with skin tanned the color of motor oil from working in the sun. The women stopped talking and inched toward the walls.
Yes, there were thieves in the area, Dala said. They swooped in on motorcycles three or four at a time. They bragged that they were working with the Americans, he said. Villagers suspected they were police, drawn from a local militia force.
"If they're stealing from people and killing people in our name, that's a lie," Robertson said.
Asked to take wanted posters of bin Laden, Dala and Khan politely refused.
Friend or foe?
In Akikh, the village high in the mountains near the Khost-Gardez pass, 14-year-old Manan was on his knees. All guerrilla wars are marked by ambiguity: Who is friend, who is foe? The conflict in Afghanistan is no different. Why had Manan hidden the weapons? What were they for?
Afghans have had centuries of experience dealing with occupying armies. They seem to know just what American troops want to hear. During a recent trip into the mountains, Lt. Arntson ran into two men whom he had arrested a month earlier. Both enthusiastically thanked him.
"When I came back from the jail, I said good things about being in jail," a man named Jennai reassured the young officer. "'The Americans are good people,' I told them. 'They don't want to detain anyone. When they know you are innocent, they let you go soon.' Long live the Americans!"
Now the lieutenant was trying to judge the actions of young Manan. The boy risked being detained. He breathed through clenched teeth, glanced at his captors and then anxiously up the hill behind his home. His widowed mother lived in the home of her three brothers-in-law, all in the business of cutting and selling trees from the mountains.
Arntson's men had found al-Qaida leaflets near Manan's house, new cold-weather jackets, plus the weapons and ammunition.
"I saw him, I saw other kids, carrying stuff up there. Does he understand?" Arntson said, staring at Manan through wraparound sunglasses. "All I want is for him to tell the truth."
Arntson took off his helmet and brought his face to within a few inches of Manan's and glared. Manan giggled.
"I know you're lying," Arntson said through an interpreter.
"I am not lying," the teenager said.
"I saw you! I watched you! Why are you lying?"
"I don't know about this, about you watching me," he said.
Manan's uncle, a turbaned, barrel-chested man named Makhmadullah, emerged from the house, spread out a blanket and offered tea to the Americans. After a few awkward moments, some of the soldiers took a few sips. Makhmadullah smiled, even as his nephew was being questioned a few feet away.
The children of the village, he explained, hoarded munitions. It was a problem, he agreed, but no reason to be alarmed. "It's children's work," he said.
Arntson relied on the advice of his senior enlisted man, Sgt. 1st Class James Parrish. Parrish figured Manan and his uncle knew about the weapons. Start digging anywhere in these hills, Parrish said, and you would unearth an arms cache.
Maybe the family just couldn't bring itself to throw away the leftovers of past wars. Maybe Manan and his uncles thought they might need the weapons to battle with neighbors. In any case, Parrish didn't think the arsenal was intended for an attack on American troops.
"It's a bunch of old crap," he said. "It wasn't being prepped for use."
Arntson's goal was the same as that of all the American forces searching the border area: to deny supporters of the Taliban and al-Qaida sanctuary in these mountains. He decided to tread gently, to try to find a balance between coercion and kindness.
He walked over and told Manan to get up. The boy stood, rubbing his knees, and hobbled back to his house.
Makhmadullah came closer as the Americans loaded the weapons and ammunition into the back of a Humvee. "I swear by God I don't know about these weapons," he said.
It may have even been true. Maybe in Akikh, the border region's sympathy with al-Qaida, and its deep distrust of unbelievers, had vanished like the stars at sunrise. Maybe Akikh was a peaceful place.
"You are our friends," Makhmaduallh shouted.
The Americans said nothing.
"You came to help us. If I lie, then cut out my eye. If I lie, then you can cut off my head."