Beneath the craggy mountains that give way to parched, arid plains, there are few homes or farms. Instead, there are the occasional tents of the Kuchi, brightly dressed and bejeweled nomads who make up more than 10 percent of Afghanistan's population, surviving on little more than their sheep and their ancient tribal code.
Of the three pillars of that code which distinguishes them from the settled and urbanized Pashtun, whose forefathers gave up this itinerant existence the most important principle is to give shelter to those in flight.
"Even if it costs us our lives, we must protect anyone who needs our help," says Bismillah Shinware, one of the leaders of a Kuchi clan who pitched camp on this sun-cracked piece of earth a few days ago and will stay only a few nights more.
"If somebody seeks refuge from us, we will give support or refuge to them, which is not something that people in the city will do," she adds.
It's a principle, unfortunately, which benefits Al Qaeda and Taliban fugitives, say US-allied Afghan military officials fighting on the frontlines of the war in Afghanistan. The entrenched Kuchi belief in the duty to provide safe haven to a person on the run, coupled with near-universal illiteracy and a lack of communication with the outside world, is turning the usually neutral nomads into unwitting guardians and accomplices of Al Qaeda and Taliban fighters in hiding, military officials in eastern Afghanistan say.
"The nomads supply them food and shelter, and the Al Qaeda give them money," says Sardar Khan, the deputy commander of the 600-strong Afghan "campaign force" in Khost, an area that local Afghan officials say is rife with Al Qaeda and Taliban fugitives.
"It's simply business. They are using the Kuchis as a buffer. Some of the nomads out there are helping them," he says.
"The Kuchis tell passersby not to go into their areas, saying that it is off-limits to outsiders because it is where their women and children are living," adds Mr. Khan, whose forces come under the aegis of Badsha Khan, the region's mightiest military leader.
Economic incentives do have sway, say the Kuchis, who usually must barter sheep and lamb's meat for rice and a few other staples to feed their families.
Far more important than money, however, is the pride they take in the ancient traditions that the Kuchis say the educated, city-dwelling Pashtun have lost. They are also motivated by the desire to be good Muslims, Mr. Shinware says, a department in which they figure the Arab visitors to their land especially Saudis know best.
It is also clear that although this clan of Kuchis say they haven't had any recent requests for help from apparent Al Qaeda militants, they have crossed paths with them regularly in the past and they knew that they were led by a "holy man" named Osama bin Laden.
Last winter, for example, Shinware waited around in the city of Jalalabad, in eastern Afghanistan, for four days, in the hopes of basking in Osama bin Laden's glow. Shinware had heard from the Taliban's mullahs that Mr. bin Laden was almost supernatural.
"Our mullahs told us that he is a great man and talked about him as though he could do miracles and we had seen his picture and saw that he had a very nice beard," says Shinware, settling down on a rough wool blanket to talk as all the clan's children cram for viewing space at a tent's front entrance. "The mullahs said that he was so great that anyone who tried to hurt him would be hurt by God."
It was with that in mind that Shinware thought it would be worth seeing bin Laden.
Throughout the year, depending on the season, the nomads and their flocks migrate back and forth between rural areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan, which share an enormous, porous border. Come Fridays, however, if they happen to be close enough to a village or city, the Kuchi men go into a local mosque to listen to the mullah's sermon so they can bring Islamic ideas back to their women and children. Shinware had heard that bin Laden was in town and thought he could help his tribe's lot.
"Our camp was near his base, so I told our tribesman not to move until we see this man," recalls Shinware, talking above the bleats of sheep in an adjacent tent. We thought God would be happy with us if we saw Osama bin Laden."
Shinware says they walked away disappointed. Not because they have any idea of the deeds attributed to Mr. bin Laden, but because the man they were waiting for never came out to meet them.
Still, he says, they have never had any reason to doubt the Arab sojourners in their land on the contrary, they looked to them for spiritual guidance.
"We respect everyone who is from Saudi Arabia because we pray in that direction," explains Ajab Gul, another Kuchi tribal leader. "They come from the place where the hajj is, and we can never go on hajj because we are too poor."
The Kuchis say they frequently came across Arabs here in recent years, and that their interactions were always friendly. They often stopped to chat, and would gave the Kuchis sweet dates from the Middle East and copies of the Koran, which Shinware says they happily tucked into their tents for safe keeping, but never read: becoming literate is something considered alien to the true Kuchi way. Politically indifferent, they also never had a strong opinion one way or the other about the Taliban, save their dislike of the fundamentalist regime's attempts to conscript their young men for army service. The Taliban would stop in and tell them to sign up five or 10 of their young men for the jihad, but the Kuchis often bought the "recruiters" off with an equivalent number of sheep to feed their troops.
Now, they say, the Arabs have been less visible, though they're not sure why. Only about an hour's drive south of Kabul, they have never heard of the Sept. 11 attacks on the US.
At first, they heard the Russians might be invading again. All they know about the war is that someone called "Amrika" started bombing a few months back, and that they lost 50 sheep in one of the air bombardments around Jalalabad.
Shinware proffers that his people's lack of formal education makes them easy targets for Al Qaeda. He does not doubt that many of his wandering brethren would feel compelled to help anyone who comes through especially pious and learned Muslims, he says.
"We are like blind people. We can only see the road we came on and the one we have to travel again," he says, gesturing toward the nearby highway, full this time of year with delegations of Kuchi their women covered in eye-catching veils of hot fuschia, dark turquoise, and lime green making their way to new locations for spring.
"You cannot steal our sheep by being a smart man," says Shinware, "but you can steal our hearts by being a religious man."
Like Shinware's litany of Pashtu proverbs, many traditions here defy time. In addition to the duty to help a fugitive in need, there are also two other precepts: nanawati, which requires a tribe to pardon a perpetrator,even one guilty of murder if he apologizes to the family and offers to let them punish him; and teega, which requires internal tribal disputes to be decided by their tribal chief.
Moreover, many aspects of Kuchi culture continue to have a profound influence on how other Pashtuns behave. Many Pasthun villagers still believe it is wrong to turn in a man who comes seeking help, and believe that it is one's duty to at least help the fugitive escape safely to the next village.
And, one member of a tribe must never cross another member of the same tribe. Afghan military officials said last week that such dynamics kept Ayman Zawahiri, the Egyptian doctor who is considered bin Laden's No. 2 mastermind, from being captured when he was in the area late last month.
An Afghan man with whom Mr. Zawahiri was reported to be traveling was from the Naka Zadran sub-tribe, and because that man was recognized as a tribal relative of the Paktika Province warlord Zakim Kahn, Zawahiri's entourage was allowed to pass through checkpoints controlled by Zakim Khan sometime during or after Operation Anaconda.
"Our people are very naive and conservative, and we need to do something about that, says Brig. Gen. Gul Nawaz Mondazi, the military adviser to the governor of Khost.
"One of our tribal traditions is hospitality," says Mondazi. "Whoever comes to your village, if he is in danger, you must escort him from your village or keep him there. So when Zawahiri went through Paktika, they only guided him," he says. "The rule is, even if an enemy comes to our village, we don't kill him. But we can pass him on to another village and let the government kill him there, or on the way.