Checking that the coast is clear of US Apache and Chinook helicopters, Mullah Abdul Rasool, a former Kabul official, rides his motorcycle down to a stream at twilight where he preaches to shepherds in an almond grove. He scoffs at the idea that his conservative Taliban movement is finished.
"We are dangerous people, especially when we see that Islam is in danger," he says, stroking a long, scraggly beard beneath his bleached-white turban. "Our people were happy when we were in power, and they will support our second revolution when it comes."
The guerrillas in this remote border region arrive at night with the sound of a throttle. Mullahs on motorcycles come to preach against the "infidel US and British invaders" and plot their own return to power. Their actions and vows are testimony to US military claims that the war in Afghanistan is going to be a long, drawn-out struggle against the return of Islamic extremism. But as the fight continues, some US allies argue that the tactics of the Western coalition need an overhaul.
The US-led military campaign, assisted by 1,000-strong contingents of British and Canadian troops, is aimed at eviscerating the influence of the Taliban and arresting their senior leaders.
It has been led in Zabul Province by highly mobile teams of US special forces, which sometimes deploy in 17- and 18-strong "A Teams" for several weeks in one spot. But they are more typically found zooming through the dust bowls and mountain passes in their sophisticated flying machines.
Some British officers at the Bagram Air Base near Kabul are now taking issue with the US-led strategy. They say that creating more small bases across Afghanistan's volatile Pashtun tribal belt and melding antiterror activities with a more concerted "hearts and minds" campaign would work better than the often futile fight that is being conducted now.
"Afghanistan presents immense challenges, and it is crucial to dispel the impression that many Afghans have that this is an invading force that engages in hit-and-run operations across the country without reaching out to the population," says Royal Marines Lt.-Col. Ben Curry. "Also, if you are stationed on the ground in villages and towns, it is far easier to pick out the enemy in a crowd."
Despite the campaign, the Taliban hasn't vanished as fast as the world hoped it would. When the fundamentalist regime was forced out of Kabul and then nearby Kandahar last year, thousands of young mullahs fled to Zabul Province, which became a base used to congregate, console, and plot.
Zabul's mullahs also have a haven in neighboring Pakistan, where, local Afghan officials insist, the mosques and madrassahs harbor "foreign fighters," including scores of Arabs loyal to Osama bin Laden. A Saudi newspaper recently published what its editors alleged was an interview from the Pakistani side of the border given by supreme Taliban leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar.
In US military parlance the strategy against the Taliban is called "a light footprint." In this case, it means dropping in and out of the area unexpectedly. "We are not here to hold ground, that is a job for the Afghans themselves," said US Major Bryan Hilferty. "But we try to keep the enemy guessing. They never know when we might drop 800 British Royal Marines on their head or just hammer them with a few Apaches."
A lightning raid late last week is typical of US tactics. One hundred and fifty US and Canadian troops attacked an Afghan village in Kandahar Province, rounding up 50 suspected Taliban fighters. One three-year-old Afghan girl was killed during the raid when she tumbled into a well and drowned. Military officials said they were still processing the prisoners and trying to determine their identity.
Afghan and US military commanders claim they are winning the war against Islamic extremism in Afghanistan, but they also warn that the fight is far from over. "It is going to be tough," said US Gen. John M. Keane, vice chief of staff of the US Army, addressing members of the 101st Airborne Division based at Kandahar airfield. "This is a tough environment, and these guys are not going to give up easy."
The general, whose speech over the weekend at the Kandahar base was peppered with slang and expletives rarely used by officers of his rank, praised US forces for fighting Afghan hatred of their fellow Americans. "The No. 1 emotion used to be hate for Americans," he said.
"You turned the No. 1 emotion from hate to fear. That's right, fear. Using an expletive to describe the anti-American fighters, he said "[they're] running around in the mountains up there, running from you; that is what they are doing." General Keane also warned that Al Qaeda and Taliban forces were "trying to establish another safe haven in [neighboring] Pakistan, and we will deal with that."
While searching for Al Qaeda strongholds, US forces have received help from local allies. In an unusual stance among Pashtun leaders normally wary of foreign armies, the governor of Zabul, Hamidullah Tokhi, says he welcomes the idea of more US and coalition forces on the ground to help overcome what he characterizes as lingering, often extreme hatred toward Westerners. "When the antiterror coalition are on the ground here, people will see that they do not represent the evil that the Taliban is describing them to be; people will trust them," says Governor Hamidullah.
The governor lives nervously alongside key Taliban leaders, who agreed last year not to fight his arrival in Zabul, which was ushered in by US helicopter gunships.
In the village of Darwazagi, a drought-stricken enclave set beneath parched, rugged mountains that mark Pakistan's lawless tribal areas, US special forces have dropped in on two occasions in the past two months, surrounded the market, and conducted searches for Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters. But most locals have still not grasped the need for a war against terrorism. Motorcycle repairman Abdullah Khan says he is still hoping to meet Osama bin Laden. "It is my dream to see him," he said. "He is the world's most famous holy warrior."
Other villagers said that the mullahs, while unwelcome at civic and military meetings by day around Darwazagi, still rule the night. Abdul Kareem, a teashop owner, said that the mullahs usually operate in small groups.
"They only come down from the mountains when they hear that the Western coalition forces have left an area," he said, pouring a stranger a cup of green tea in the rickety hut sometimes used by the returning Taliban for political meetings.
Aman Ullah, the governor's security chief in Kalat, says: "To be honest, there is great sympathy here for the mullahs. They can hide anywhere, and the people will never speak a word to the Americans. When the US special forces were here, the mullahs ran up into the mountains and hid. For several weeks, we had no one to lead us in prayer. It was a difficult time for all of us."