The mission calls for Romanian armored personnel carriers to escort U.S. military officials to a village further south where a Taliban "night letter" was recently reported to have surfaced. The leaflet was posted overnight on the mud wall of a compound in the Takteh-Pol district of Kandahar Province. It warns villagers that they will face the wrath of Taliban fighters if they cooperate with the U.S.-led antiterrorism coalition.
Intelligence reports also suggest some Pashtun tribesmen are unhappy about the presence of coalition forces in the area.
The U.S.-Romanian column sets off to investigate, driving south on Highway 4 toward the Spin Boldak border crossing and Pakistan.
Before arriving at the border, the convoy leader radios Kandahar airfield to say the team has reached their turn-off point -- a dirt path leading to a cluster of buildings, which serve as the Takteh-Pol district administrative headquarters.
The headquarters stand on defensible ground that straddles Highway 4. The rusting hull of a Russian armored personnel carrier has been dragged to a position where it can shelter Afghan militia fighters against an assault from the highway. The rusting muzzle of a Soviet-era artillery piece peeks out from under a tarp and a small group of turbaned Afghan men are milling about with AK-47s.
The U.S. and Romanian troops wait until their scouts have assessed the area before approaching the gunmen. They are greeted by Takteh-Pol district administrator Gul Mohammad Karzai, a 53-year-old fellow clan member of Afghan leader Hamid Karzai.
He wears a black "shalwar-kameez" -- the long shirt and wide pants favored by the Taliban. But unlike the Taliban, he does not wear a beard or the Taliban's black "lungi" turban.
When initially asked about the appearance of night letters in the district, or whether there are any "bad guys" sheltering in the nearby villages, Karzai appears evasive. "I don't know about the night letters," he said. "We have here regular meetings of the Shura, the scholars in the consultative body of our district, and mullahs from throughout the district. These leaders are in touch with the provincial government of Kandahar. They always keep an eye on security issues in their areas and if they encounter anything [like Taliban fighters or Al-Qaeda], they will immediately tell me or go to the governor of Kandahar."
The district leader takes the U.S. civil-affairs team, led by Colonel Wes Parker, inside the main building and the group sits on the carpeted floor. Parker asks a series of standard questions he uses to assess humanitarian and security concerns in the villages he visits.
He asks about the number of people, families, and houses in the area. He asks about water wells and the last time there was a visit by a nongovernmental aid worker. He asks about school facilities, how many people can read, how many radio receivers are in the area and what frequencies villagers typically listen to.
After further questioning, the district leader admits he is aware of a night letter and a map of alleged Taliban positions that was passed on to Romanian troops the previous week. Then, when asked how residents in the district feel about the U.S.-led coalition, it becomes clear that Karzai knows about villagers who support the Taliban and may be sheltering some of its members.
"Generally, the people are very happy that you [in the coalition] are here. And they say that if you were not here, there would be fighting again. They say militia commanders would begin to fight against each other once again and that, possibly, some more bad actions [by the Taliban or Al-Qaeda] would begin too," he said.
Parker asks if the district leader knows of any individuals who oppose the coalition forces in Afghanistan. Karzai confirms that there are some, but says their names would have to be provided by local mullahs. "Yes, there are a few people who do not like the coalition forces," he said, "but they are not in power."
As the meeting continues, the group is joined by three more Afghan men -- a local police chief, an intelligence officer, and a district security chief named Asdullah. The security chief advises the Americans to strengthen their presence along the border with Pakistan. Asdullah says drugs and ammunition are being smuggled from Pakistan through the southern part of Kandahar Province. He agrees to show the Americans specific routes that he says the smugglers are using.
As the meeting comes to an end, Karzai advises Parker to be cautious about the information he is receiving from villagers about the Taliban and Al-Qaeda. He says he thinks Taliban sympathizers are making false reports so that U.S. forces will waste time and resources by looking in the wrong places.
As the U.S. troops leave the area, Parker says the interviews have resulted in some new nominations for humanitarian and reconstruction projects, but "nothing urgent." Parker makes no comment about the reliability of the information about the Taliban and Al-Qaeda.