Never-Ending Story: On the Front Lines of Afghanistan's Counterinsurgency

A high-adrenaline day with NATO troops in eastern Afghanistan.

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Musa Khan, the governor of Ghazni province. / Michael Hirsh

Updated, 4:35 p.m.

ZANA KHAN, Afghanistan--Within 30 minutes after the shura--or community meeting--ended in this village in eastern Ghazni province on Wednesday, we came under mortar fire from the Taliban.

"We have contact!" shouted the Polish International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) commander who was escorting us to the helicopter. "Run!"

Run we did, huffing and puffing under helmets and heavy body armor, a group of over-aged pretend soldiers--actually, just reporters--trying to understand a war that barely seems to exist most of the time. Until all of a sudden it does, rocketing in from nowhere.

Zana Khan is a fault line in the decadelong conflict in Afghanistan--one of those dusty, primeval villages where all the money and U.S.-backed power of the New Afghanistan contends daily with the insidious forces of the old unreconstructed Afghanistan, a region defined by ignorance and terror.

"It's routine," explained Krzysztof Wojcik, a retired Polish special-forces major, as we sat inside an armored medevac vehicle listening to the "Whump!" of mortars from high in the mountains and the crackling of return fire from the Polish 30-mm guns and Afghan National Army machine guns. "They [the Taliban] knew about the shura. They knew when it ended," said Wojcik. "They waited for the people to leave and the helicopters to come, because they knew there would be VIPs."

The Taliban's chief VIP target appeared to be Musa Khan, the governor of Ghazni, who took off just ahead of us in a Polish Hind helicopter--an upgraded version of the Soviet choppers used against the mujahadeen in the 1980s. The shura, a traditional gathering of male elders and leading citizens, was Khan's idea. Through speeches, gifts, and new schoolbooks, Khan was trying to make the case to the barely literate people of this tiny mountain village in the Taliban-infected southeast of Afghanistan that his way, the way of the New Afghanistan--the way of the international community, America, and NATO--was vastly better and more prosperous than the way of the Taliban, who have kept a NATO-funded new school from opening for three years.

And he's very impressive, Khan is. Black-bearded and black-turbaned, he is eloquent and learned in the Koran, and he has a deep, sonorous voice that puts you in mind of, say, Anthony Quinn in Lawrence of Arabia. As some 250 townspeople, their faces a deep reddish-tan from years of exposure, sat squinting quizzically in the sun, Khan delivered "my message to the Taliban," saying he and his government were every bit as religious as the Islamist radicals, observing "all the pillars of Islam," and that he delivered justice every bit as well (Khan made a big deal of his chief judge sentencing two killers to hang the day before).

Khan also bravely countered the Taliban line that he and the national government of President Hamid Karzai were merely stooges of America and the West. "The Taliban are fond of saying that our plans are made up by foreigners, but the clothes you are wearing are also made by foreigners. The Toyotas you are driving, these are also made by foreigners," he said. "The Taliban are keeping you from the good life and the international community, from sending your children to school, from paving your roads."

It all sounded hopeful, and many villagers applauded and walked away happily down the stony path to their mud-walled homes carrying thick gray woolen blankets and donated new plastic sandals as gifts. "I think it went very well," Khan remarked to me afterward. "The first shura, we had only four people." Other villagers praised the newly strengthened Afghan police and army, saying the Taliban was less brazen and weaker than a few years ago, before President Obama's "surge" began.

But the mortar attack at the end was an abrupt reminder of what a number of Afghans attending the shura told me and a visiting group of reporters privately. "Two hours after you leave, they will be back," said Mohammad, a 32-year-old farmer. "They will burn those gifts."

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Michael Hirsh is chief correspondent for National Journal.

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