Counterinsurgents on Patrol

CHENAR -- When NATO soldiers arrive in a new and potentially hostile settlement, they talk to villagers and listen for signs, however oblique or fleeting, of friendliness. Today, after raiding, searching, and cordoning the village of Chenar, they hear two such signs. The first is an invitation to sit down for tea. The second was a comment from Muhammad Hassan, 50, a shopkeeper. "If the Taliban come here, we will drink their blood."

One could hope for less. The patrol began early. We woke to a streaky yellow dawn over distant mountains, and a desert panorama that warmed about as fast as my convection oven at home. Khakriz looks much like the Mojave, with a vast flat expanse that extends many miles ahead, and no vegetation taller than my knee. Because of the terrain, anyone can see us coming for miles ahead. When we begin our march from the improvised camp to Chenar, we assume that when we arrive twenty minutes later the whole village will know we are coming.

Afghan National Police, Afghan National Army, and Canadian Forces

The procedure is simple. Afghan and NATO forces ring the village, and smaller teams penetrate into the center and search compounds, some randomly and some because of suspicious activity. The Afghan National Police, which has spent years cowering in its base because it lacks resources to fight, has a few compounds in mind, and directs a team of engineers and sniffer-dogs to go in and look for weapons. Finding a Kalashnikov would satisfy the team. Explosive residue or detonation cord would be even better. A recent bust outside of Kandahar yielded multiple factories for roadside bombs, including one so efficiently run, said the Canadian colonel who supervised the operation, that it "would have made Henry Ford proud."

View Khakriz in a larger map

But today there are no jackpots. Instead, a familiar and slightly eerie routine: everywhere are signs of life -- a hoe in a pomegranate orchard, the aroma of freshly sparked spliff, a dog tethered to a tree, footprints. But actual humans are scarce. Walking through Chenar and intruding (with embarrassment) on its homes is like boarding the Mary Celeste. Some of the loose-hanging wooden doors are sealed with brittle padlocks. But inside is almost nothing other than a few mats on the floor, a metal basin for washing grapes, and (this is the nearest sign of modernity) a battery-powered wall clock nailed to a mud wall.

The invitation to sit down with a few of the village elders arrives late in the search, and the two captains leading the patrol -- Martin Arsenault of Canada and Joseph Hardigree of the US -- accept eagerly. The elders speak relatively freely, but until Muhammad Hassan's blood-drinking vow, without any sign of warmth or willingness to cooperate. They say, first of all, that the Taliban has left. The Taliban saw the foreigners come to town and retreated to the hills and over the mountains to Gorak to wait out the international presence. Muhammad Hassan says he expects the Taliban to return within three days to see what the foreigners did.

To earn the village's support for the government, Hassan says, all the government would have to do is build schools, drill wells, and reconstruct (more likely construct for the first time) modern infrastructure in the village. "If you do this, we will fight the Taliban," he says. "Now the police come to our shops and ask for food," because the police has no supplies of its own and officers need to eat. ("We'll work on that," says Hardigree.) But then the Afghan shakes his head, and what he says startles and appalls his NATO audience.

"I think it's possible that you are supporting the Taliban," he says. "Back in the start of the war, the Americans were so good, they could hit their target from many miles away. Now you cannot even keep the roads safe." He is sincere in his accusation, and in Arsenault's face I see a moment of hesitation as he wonders whether to be angry at the conspiracy theory or relieved that the man is open enough to say he believes it. Hardigree, not so circumspect, responds in a fury, saying that "these guys killed three thousand of my fellow citizens," and the idea that the US supports the Taliban offends him.

On the walk back, the soldiers pronounce the mission a success. They always do: even when they find nothing and meet villagers whose bizarre heresies reveal them to be even more inscrutable than they had seemed, NATO can say with some justification that it has created a presence where it had none before. But it is still a presence that will roll back over the pass before the week is up. That's the plan. And the Americans and Canadians are not the only ones planning three days ahead.