ARGHANDAB VALLEY, AFGHANISTAN -- The gray-bearded man pushed his wheelbarrow through the field, past the coils of concertina wire and toward the American combat outpost that was home to a platoon of 82nd Airborne paratroopers. In the wheelbarrow lay a man he claimed was his brother, the lower half of his white kamees stained bright red. Blood seeped from a golf ball-sized hole in his leg.
Four Afghan National Policemen walked toward the gate to investigate. One of them spoke to the two men, then turned to Staff Sergeant Anthony Farnsworth. "They're Taliban," he surmised.
The wounded man shifted in the wheelbarrow, his discomfort clear, and asked the policemen, "Why would they shoot a farmer?"
The interpreter, Solomon, translated the question and Farnsworth stepped forward. He wore latex gloves to help treat the man's wounds. "They didn't shoot you. I did," he said. "Tell him, Solomon. Tell him I'm the one who shot him." Solomon did, and the man eyed him warily.
Half an hour earlier, Farnsworth, a lean 25-year-old sniper, had seen six men gathered by the canal, a half mile away, lingering next to a group of abandoned buildings from which the outpost had taken fire several times in the previous week. Farnsworth noticed that one of the men was carrying an AK-47 rifle and was cleared to fire.
If the man had been Taliban, his death would have meant one fewer fighter planting the bombs that were devastating American soldiers in the area. But if he was a farmer with the bad luck to work crops on a battlefield, then the American soldiers had alienated one of the very people they were trying to win over, perhaps even giving him strong incentive to support the Taliban. The clustered soldiers and police seemed to doubt the latter scenario.
"What were you doing down in the canal?" Solomon asked the patient.
"Why did you have an AK?"
"I didn't have a weapon," the wounded man said, the back of his hand propped on his forehead, resting against his black turban. "I had a wheelbarrow."
"I'm pretty sure I know the difference between an AK and a wheelbarrow," Farnsworth responded.
The man identified himself as Shir Ali, 40 years old. Farnsworth said he recognized him. Several days earlier, after the platoon had been hit with an IED that took a soldier's legs, Farnsworth had noticed this man watching them.
Solomon asked the wounded man when he'd last been in the area where the IED exploded."I've never been there," he said.
"You're a liar," Farnsworth said. "I know you're lying to me."
Another soldier walked out and saw the man reclining on a stretcher. "What happened to him?"
"I shot him in the leg," Farnsworth said.
"For real?" the soldier said, only half interested. Gunfire, and its effects, had long ago woven itself deeply into the soldiers' days.
Spc. Clayton Taylor, the platoon's medic, wiped a smear of blood from the man's leg, then packed gauze into the exit wound. The man didn't wince or flinch as Taylor pushed an index finger inside his thigh. Taylor wrapped a bandage around the leg to hold the gauze until the man could be taken to a larger base, where the wound would be cleaned and stitched.
The man who claimed to be the patient's brother watched the medic work, doubtful. "But the wound looks very bad," he said. "Shouldn't something more be done?"
Taylor looked up at him. "Are you a doctor, or a farmer?" he asked.
The man laughed nervously. "Farmer," he said.
"Do I come out to your field and tell you how to grow?" Taylor said.
Staff Sergeant Edward Rosa, one of the platoon's squad leaders, pulled the gray-bearded man aside.
"If you're not Taliban, why won't you help the Americans?" Rosa asked.
"There are Taliban everywhere," the old man said. "It's a big problem."
"I know it's a big problem. That's why we're out here, getting hurt, trying to help your country," Rosa said. "If you don't help us, even a little bit, nothing is going to change."
The man stared at him.
"You have Taliban living in that compound," Rosa said.
"I know there's Taliban there," he said "But we're farmers. We're poor people. What can I do?"
Rosa had met the man months earlier, during a foot patrol. He had refused to shake the soldiers' hands. "Now your brother gets shot and you bring him here for us to help him?"
The man held out his hands, palms up. What can I do?
Rosa walked away, frustrated, but unsurprised after months of similar conversations. Maybe the wounded man was Taliban. Maybe not. Determining the truth seemed nearly impossible.
The man returned to his brother, who lay on a stretcher in the shade. As the morning heated up, he fanned the wounded man and swatted away flies. The patient said little as he waited for a convoy to take him to the larger base nearby where he would be stitched up and held as an insurgent, and then eventually released when villagers complained an innocent farmer had been shot.
Brian Mockenhaupt's feature story The Last Patrol, detailing the harrowing experiences of Farnsworth's unit in Afghanistan, will appear in the next issue of The Atlantic.