The highway that leads south out of Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan, passes through a craggy range of arid, sand-colored mountains with sharp, stony peaks. Poplar trees and green fields line the road. Nomadic Kuchi women draped in colorful scarves tend to camels as small boys herd sheep. The hillsides are dotted with cemeteries: rough-hewn tombstones tilting at haphazard angles, multicolored flags flying above them. There is nothing to indicate that the terrain we are about to enter is one of the world's deadliest war zones. On the outskirts of the capital we are stopped at a routine checkpoint manned by the Afghan National Army. The wary soldiers single me out, suspicious of my foreign accent. My companions, two Afghan men named Shafiq and Ibrahim, convince the soldiers that I am only a journalist. Ibrahim, a thin man with a wispy beard tapered beneath his chin, comes across like an Afghan version of Bob Marley, easygoing and quick to smile. He jokes with the soldiers in Dari, the Farsi dialect spoken throughout Afghanistan, assuring them that everything is OK.
As we drive away, Ibrahim laughs. The soldiers, he explains, thought I was a suicide bomber. Ibrahim did not bother to tell them that he and Shafiq are midlevel Taliban commanders, escorting me deep into Ghazni, a province largely controlled by the spreading insurgency that now dominates much of the country.
Until recently, Ghazni, like much of central Afghanistan, was considered reasonably safe. But now the province, located 100 miles south of the capital, has fallen to the Taliban. Foreigners who venture to Ghazni often wind up kidnapped or killed. In defiance of the central government, the Taliban governor in the province issues separate ID cards and passports for the Taliban regime, the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. Farmers increasingly turn to the Taliban, not the American-backed authorities, for adjudication of land disputes.
By the time we reach the town of Salar, only 50 miles south of Kabul, we have already passed five tractor-trailers from military convoys that have been destroyed by the Taliban. The highway, newly rebuilt courtesy of $250 million, most of it from U.S. taxpayers, is pocked by immense craters, most of them caused by roadside bombs planted by Taliban fighters. As in Iraq, these improvised explosive devices are a key to the battle against the American invaders and their allies in the Afghan security forces, part of a haphazard but lethal campaign against coalition troops and the long, snaking convoys that provide logistical support.
We drive by a tractor-trailer still smoldering from an attack the day before, and the charred, skeletal remains of a truck from an attack a month earlier. At a gas station, a crowd of Afghans has gathered. Smoke rises from the road several hundred yards ahead.
"Jang," says Ibrahim, who is sitting in the front passenger seat next to Shafiq. "War. The Americans are fighting the Taliban."
Shafiq and Ibrahim use their cellphones to call their friends in the Taliban, hoping to find out what is going on. Suddenly, the chatter of machine-gun fire erupts, followed by the thud of mortar fire and several loud explosions that shake the car. I flinch and duck in the back seat, cursing as Shafiq and Ibrahim laugh at me.
"Tawakkal al Allah," Shafiq lectures me. "Depend on God."
This highway — the only one in all Afghanistan — was touted as a showpiece by the Bush administration after it was rebuilt. It provides the only viable route between the two main American bases, Bagram to the north and Kandahar to the south. Now coalition forces travel along it at their own risk. In June, the Taliban attacked a supply convoy of 54 trucks passing through Salar, destroying 51 of them and seizing three escort vehicles. In early September, not far from here, another convoy was attacked and 29 trucks were destroyed. On August 13th, a few days before I pass through Salar, the Taliban staged an unsuccessful assassination attempt on the U.S.-backed governor of Ghazni, wounding two of his guards.
The Kill Team: How U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan murdered innocent civilians and mutilated their corpses – and how their officers failed to stop them. Plus: an exclusive look at the war crime photos censored by the Pentagon
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