A convoy of six Humvees bounced along a winding, rocky riverbed last week and entered this village in Khost province near the Pakistani border, chased by a mob of schoolboys in bright blue tunics and pajamas.
The visitors' mission was a tricky one: part diplomacy, part sleuthing, part carrot and stick. The local tribe was viewed as friendly, but U.S. forces had received information that anti-government insurgents were active in the area. By offering to help the needy village, while staging a stern show of force, they hoped to reinforce its wavering allegiance.
For the next two hours, a young U.S. Army captain and three Special Forces officers sat in a dirt courtyard on hastily arranged plastic chairs, while armed cavalry troops guarded each door. Three bearded village elders sat and welcomed them politely. Would the visitors like tea?
"Tea, yes, that would be good," said Denny, a Special Forces member who asked to be identified only by his first name. He smiled, but then he glimpsed some young men lingering outside, and his tone changed sharply. "No one goes in or out."
Then the questions began. The elders listened and nodded gravely, but the exchanges, translated by two Afghan interpreters accompanying the soldiers, had a perfunctory feel. Similar rituals had been performed in a hundred other villages, with similar results.
"Are there any Taliban, al-Qaeda or Hek forces left here?" asked Denny, referring in the last case to followers of renegade militia leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar.
"No, no, no," one elder said, while the others shook their heads emphatically.
"When people drive at night from Pakistan to Khost, do they come through your village?" Denny asked. U.S. and Afghan officials say Islamic insurgents regularly sneak across the border into Afghanistan to stage attacks.
"No, no, no," the elder repeated with a frown. A boy poured more tea and put out little dishes of candy all around.
Capt. Frank Brooks, 30, a U.S. cavalry officer, leaned forward, trying a different tack.
"We know you are good people, but we have pulled IEDs out of the soil near your village," said Brooks, referring to improvised explosive devices or roadside bombs, which have killed several dozen foreign and local troops across Afghanistan this year. "This is dangerous for us and also for your children walking to school."
The elders nodded gravely again, agreeing that it was indeed a danger and protesting that they knew nothing. They said they were grateful for the presence of U.S. forces, that they had good relations with the local police commander, and that they had fended off insurgent attackers three times.
"I find it difficult to believe what you are saying because of all these bad reports we are getting," Brooks said evenly. "We know your village is poor, and would like to come back here and deliver a lot of school supplies, but we won't do that until the security situation gets better. We need your help."
"Inshallah," the elders responded, their faces solemn and noncommittal. If God wills it.
That evening, back in his office at Salerno Forward Operating Base near Khost's provincial capital, Brooks acknowledged frustration, but no surprise, at how the day had gone.
"We get that every single time we go to a village," he said. "There's never any bad guys, there've never been any bad guys, and if there were any, they'd tell us immediately." He attributed the reticence to a combination of fear and tradition. "It's part of their code . . . to shelter even your worst enemy if asked to do so," he said.
This spring, with bombings and gun attacks increasing across Afghanistan and reports of neo-Taliban groups forming shadow governments in tribal areas across the border in Pakistan, U.S. officials say it is especially important to learn where the insurgents are finding support and sanctuary in Afghanistan. The Taliban, an Islamic militia, ruled most of Afghanistan until the U.S.-led invasion in 2001 and gave shelter to al-Qaeda.
On Tuesday, the U.S. military reported that coalition forces shot dead five fighters near Asadabad, capital of Konar, another province on the Pakistani border. Two U.S. soldiers were reported wounded by a roadside bomb that exploded near their vehicle in the southern province of Zabol.
Most of the serious recent attacks have occurred in Kandahar and Helmand provinces southwest of here, where Taliban forces have found common cause with opium poppy traffickers and other anti-government groups. But Khost abuts one of Pakistan's most volatile tribal areas, North Waziristan, and its ethnic Pashtun tribes have roots on both sides of the rugged border.
Hoping to keep local residents in the pro-government camp, U.S. forces here have made regular excursions to dozens of villages across Khost in the past month. Usually the soldiers bring sacks of school supplies and promise more help if the leaders provide useful intelligence on the locations and activities of insurgents.
But more often than not, the troops return with little more than vague promises of cooperation and staunch denials of any insurgent sightings. Although the officers have a basic knowledge of local tribal politics and try to cultivate relationships with village elders, they often feel as if they are trying to cut through a thick, polite fog.
On another day last week, Sgt. Eben Duerr, 37, led an eight-hour Humvee mission up and down steep hillside tracks to three villages he had visited once before, pledging assistance in exchange for information.
"I like to keep my promises," he repeated in each village as his men unloaded plastic sacks full of school bags and handed them out to clusters of shy, dirt-streaked children.
Like Brooks, he made a point of passing out classroom supplies to girls as well as boys, but on both days local leaders told the U.S. soldiers that there were no schools for girls nearby, and no immediate plans to open any. Khost is among the most traditional rural regions of Afghanistan; girls and women are essentially confined to their farm compounds.
At each stop, village leaders told Duerr that their security problems did not stem from intimidation or attacks by Taliban or al-Qaeda forces, but from endless, violent land feuds with neighboring tribes. Duerr expressed sympathy and urged the leaders to collaborate with regional police. But back in his Humvee, he sounded a skeptical note.
"There is a lot of finger-pointing out here," he said. "Some tribes will try to get the coalition to get rid of their rivals. Some want to keep hiding their weapons so they can fight each other. There are drugs and gangsters out here too. That's why we always try to get at least two sources of information."
When the convoy reached the third stop, at the end of a winding mountain road lined with tall pines, Duerr and his men were invited into a carpeted room to talk with a dozen elders. A camel grazed outside the hut, and little girls scurried out of sight.
The visitors dragged in two large sacks full of school bags and then sat down on the carpet, helmets off but rifles at the ready. There was no tea offered, and the mood seemed grim.
The elders immediately started reciting complaints: they had no drinking water, no radios, no jobs. They said the main road to the city of Khost was blocked by a heavily armed rival tribe, forcing them to take a three-hour detour through the hills to reach the nearest hospital.
Duerr tried to shift the conversation, politely asking if the elders had seen any strangers passing through from Pakistan (the answer was a shaking of heads all around) and urging younger village men to join the new national army and police so they could fight for their country.
"We are sick and tired of fighting," said the elder spokesman, Lal Bacha, with a dismissive wave. "We wish you great success in your work. Next time you come back, we will have a big party."