The hunt for bin Laden, the search for peace

For soldiers in this restive region without roads or laws, friends are easy to find but harder to keep.

On The Border - U.s. Troops In Afghanistan


AKIKH, Afghanistan -- The 14-year-old boy knelt on the rocky ground in these arid mountains near the Pakistan border, arms folded on his chest.

Spread out before him was a small arsenal: a rocket-propelled grenade launcher, a mortar, two assault rifles, a Soviet-era rocket, three sacks containing more than 50 pounds of explosives, a machine gun with more than 1,000 rounds of ammunition.

The boy's name was Manan. Standing over him, forcing him to remain on his knees, was U.S. Army 1st Lt. Ed Arntson, who had watched through his binoculars as Manan and several younger boys ran between a mud-brick house and the surrounding hills, hiding the weapons.

Now Arntson wanted Manan to explain what he intended to do with all that weaponry. The teenager denied knowing anything about it. "I've lived here for only one year," he said. "I didn't know the arms were there. If I knew, I would have told you. I swear before God."

It was a test of wills between two strong-willed young men. It also symbolized the frustration, fierce defiance and shadowy opposition the United States and its allies face in Afghanistan.

Two and a half years after the Taliban and al-Qaida forces were driven from power, insurgents who support a fundamentalist Islam profoundly hostile to the United States are engaged in a campaign of kidnappings, bombings and assassinations across eastern Afghanistan.

Even areas that were relatively quiet in the months after the United States toppled the Taliban, such as these mountains and steep valleys near the city of Khost, 90 miles southeast of Kabul, have erupted in violence.

This is what happened near Khost province last month: A paratrooper with Arntson's 1st Battalion of the 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment was shot in the hip by a sniper. Two insurgents who attacked a platoon with grenades were killed. An American security contractor standing along a road was shot in the arm by two men on a motorcycle. A company of paratroopers on patrol came under rocket and machine-gun fire; a day later, the same unit was ambushed in a mountain pass. A mine buried in a twisting mountain road exploded in front of a truck loaded with soldiers from Arntson's platoon. Over the span of three nights, an American base came under rocket attack four times. Marine helicopters helped Afghan soldiers kill nine guerrillas who attacked a border post. Passengers in a car opened fire on an American convoy, and the soldiers shot back, killing two of the attackers. Another American soldier was killed in a shootout.

Afghanistan was the first country that the United States tried to remake after the Sept. 11 attacks. But Afghanistan, and especially its border with Pakistan, remains a battleground, where the survival of the central government and the rule of law are far from assured. Much of the population remains beyond the government's reach, and supporters of al-Qaida and the Taliban - the former rulers of the country - attract significant support.

A critical test

For the United States, this remains a proving ground - for its efforts to create a stable civil society, defeat movements profoundly hostile to the West and, eventually, proclaim the venture to be a success. None of those goals has yet been met, as becomes evident on patrols with American troops and visits to Afghan cities and towns.

The mines, grenades and small-scale clashes have forced aid groups to all but abandon many districts and slowed reconstruction. They could also derail the national elections that have been postponed to September from June. By triggering aggressive searches and arrests, the clashes threaten to turn more of the population against the United States.

This is also the backdrop for the United States' long search for al-Qaida's founder, Osama bin Laden. Patrolling the dry river beds and goat paths that crisscross Afghanistan's border with Pakistan, Americans have for much of the past 2 1/2 years focused on his capture to the exclusion of almost everything else.

Not long ago, near the village called Dabgay, a few miles from the Pakistan border, a Humvee carrying a half-dozen paratroopers sank up to its fenders in mud. When the driver raced the motor, the wheels spun uselessly.

Afghan villagers drifted to the scene, the wide, muddy bed of the Kailu River. Dry most of the year, the river zigzags toward Pakistan's Dunikot Gorge, one of a string of suspected sanctuaries for insurgents in this region, about 100 miles southwest of Kabul.

Arntson and other members of his battalion sweated in the hot sun. Digging out proved futile. When a truck tried to pull the Humvee free, the tow-strap snapped. Finally, stronger straps were found, and the vehicle popped out of the muck like a cork from a bottle. But the sun was setting, and it was too late for a planned trip to the border. The Afghans watched, grinning, as the tired Americans resumed driving north.

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